LONDON'S UNDERGROUND MAZE

Cartophilia: Clare Clark pores over an artist’s map that cuts through time and rock to reveal a parallel London under the streets

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013 

Thanks in large part to Victor Hugo, the subterranean tunnels of Paris have long exerted a pull on the imagination, drawing tourists underground since the 1850s. The same is not true of London, though its underground maze is no less intricate. Perhaps this is because so much of it was the creation of the Victorians, for whom subterranean London represented not the shadowy underbelly of the capital but rather a thoroughly modern blend of technological innovation and national pride. From Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, the first thoroughfare to run beneath a river, to Bazalgette’s pioneering sewers and the Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground transport system, London’s subterranean networks were marvels of civic engineering, literally breaking new ground.

And yet the tunnels were not all new. Many of Bazalgette’s sewers followed ancient rivers, tributaries of the Thames and the Lea, which, as the villages clustered along their banks spread and merged, had been built over and buried. Even in medieval times these rivers were far from pure; as early as 1290, the monks of Whitefriars complained to the king about the "putrid exhalations of the Fleet", choked and polluted by the detritus of the leather tanneries, cloth dyers and tripe-dressers upstream.

When Stephen Walter was commissioned by the London Transport Museum to make a map of underground London, it was these lost rivers that first caught his imagination. As he dug deeper into the underground city he found more layers that had been hidden, forgotten or deliberately obscured. He found murder and treachery and espionage and witchcraft. He found buried treasure and the remains of mammoths, and scorpions on the Central Line. He found the city’s countless dead.

As with "The Island", a previous work which reimagined the city as an autonomous land mass, "Subterranea" takes as its skeleton a precise topographical map upon which Walter superimposes a narrative flesh of history, trivia, fable, hearsay and his own imagination. The creation of a single map of London’s labyrinthine underground network, to include not only the Tube and the network of hidden rivers, but its sewer systems, utility pipes, bunkers, vaults and tunnels, proved something of a headache. When Walter asked Thames Water for a map showing the exact course of the water ring main, they declined to provide information, citing security reasons. Though many military bunkers are believed to have been constructed under London, few are acknowledged to exist. There remains no concrete proof for the complex of tunnels Walter has drawn in under Hyde Park, though rumours of such a system abound.

Spread out on a table in Walter’s studio, "Subterranea" is a mesmerising chaos of words, epithets, hard facts and sly humour. Walter hands me a magnifying glass and I pore over my childhood neighbourhood where, in a basement, the Acid Bath Murderer reduced his victims to sludge and poured the remains “down a manhole”. Round the corner, the site of All Souls burial ground is now a school playground, while in Kensington Gardens that great gaudy shrine to royal grief, the Albert Memorial, conceals a secret chamber.

There is a boyish glee in these concurrences but also a darker truth. While London’s long history is celebrated above ground in centuries of architecture, the ground beneath our feet is riddled with its secrets and misdeeds. London’s garrulous ghosts jostle for space on Walter’s map like commuters on the Tube. Their message is plain: they are us and we, before long, will be them. 

Clare Clark is a novelist and a senior scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge

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