Dig­ging a lit­tle deeper

Giles Waterfield is in­trigued by a new study of Lon­don’s buried history, in­spired by the ex­ca­va­tions car­ried out for the Cross­rail link

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

This book is a pi­caresque ex­plo­ration and per­sonal history of cer­tain quar­ters of Lon­don that have been dug up dur­ing the cre­ation of the new Cross­rail link. The El­iz­a­beth line, as it will be named, is be­ing built from the East End (and beyond) to slough, Maiden­head and as far as Read­ing. its new sta­tions, many of them in cen­tral Lon­don, are ‘giv­ing ar­chae­ol­o­gists ex­tra­or­di­nary and prob­a­bly un­re­peat­able op­por­tu­ni­ties for care­ful ex­am­i­na­tion of what lies there’. Th­ese op­por­tu­ni­ties have been taken up by Mu­seum of Lon­don Archaeology.

Much of A Tun­nel Through Time is about the chang­ing (and some­times long-last­ing) na­ture of roads. An equally prom­i­nent theme is the graves and corpses that have been ex­ca­vated—the au­thor re­turns often to styles of burial and once-com­mon ideas, such as the be­lief that over­filled burial grounds pro­duced a deadly mi­asma that could en­dan­ger the liv­ing.

Much of the story re­lates to the hor­rors of slums and the way in which neigh­bour­hoods, often within a gen­er­a­tion or two, were newly cre­ated, flour­ished and then steadily de­clined. Es­pe­cially poignant is the ac­count of the area of st Giles high street: once a no­to­ri­ous slum, it sur­vives only in frag­ments around its church, hav­ing been largely oblit­er­ated by Vic­to­rian im­prove­ments, then by Cen­tre Point in the 1960s and more re­cent de­vel­op­ments.

Gillian Tin­dall is in­trigued by past in­hab­i­tants. her ac­count of young John Po­cock, who, in the early 19th cen­tury, lived with his fam­ily in Kil­burn and reg­u­larly walked 15 or even 30 miles a day on er­rands or for plea­sure, keep­ing a di­ary of his ad­ven­tures be­fore he left for Aus­tralia at the age of 15, is the first of a num­ber of such char­ac­ter sketches. They in­clude sir John Old­cas­tle, pos­si­bly the in­spi­ra­tion for shake­speare’s Fal­staff, the el­e­gant El­iz­a­bethan courtier John har­ing­ton, the vir­tu­ous and long-lived Duchess Dud­ley and many more.

The schol­ar­ship is worn lightly and en­ter­tain­ingly, with a strong sense of pe­riod and of the peo­ple who once oc­cu­pied th­ese places with as much in­ten­sity as we do today, though their fears and fas­ci­na­tions—of the Un­der­ground rail­way, for ex­am­ple—may have been dif­fer­ent to ours.

The book is nat­u­rally a history of change and de­mo­li­tion. Miss Tin­dall is philo­soph­i­cal about the ex­tent of loss, though al­ways grat­i­fied when she finds an in­ter­est­ing sur­vival of the past. What comes over most strongly is the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of many parts of Lon­don, ar­eas whose char­ac­ter is now be­ing widely oblit­er­ated be­cause the city au­thor­i­ties con­sider that build­ing up­wards, at any cost, is a fine thing to do.

she is scathing about the dam­age caused by post-war re­build­ing and one catches a tremor in her voice when she records the re­shap­ing of such hardy sur­vivals as Den­mark Place in soho. This is tem­pered by nos­tal­gia: ‘i should so very much like to be cross­ing Bish­ops­gate or st Giles high street at some un­ac­cus­tomed hour… and sud­denly catch sight, how­ever fleet­ingly, of a fine, tim­bered house, and hear a clop of hooves to­wards it,’ she writes.

The book refers fre­quently to his­toric maps. Al­though the pub­lish­ers have pro­vided a few ex­am­ples, com­par­ing ar­eas in, say, 1550 with the present, sup­ple­mented by a sprin­kling of pho­tographs and en­grav­ings, i would have loved to see a more richly il­lus­trated pub­li­ca­tion. still, the power of the word is strong and any en­thu­si­ast for history or for Lon­don will en­joy brows­ing through this highly per­sonal, but never whim­si­cal ac­count of the cap­i­tal.

Trea­sures of the East End: St Dun­stanõs Church, seen here in the late 19th cen­tury, is of an­cient ori­gin, but has been re­built a num­ber of times

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