The latest novel by Sue Ransom is The Beneath, set in London both above and below ground. I was so fascinated by the tunnel system that I wanted to know more and today we have a guest post by Sue about the intricate system of tunnels below London.
The Beneath is available now through Allen & Unwin.
London is an ancient city, built over thousands of years, layer upon layer. In my new book, The Beneath, there is a secret community of people living deep under the Tube network who have been there for hundreds of years, finding chilling ways to survive. I hope that there aren’t really people who have never seen daylight or watched a tree move, or have ever seen a moving picture, but there are plenty of other weird things under London. Here are just a few.
Dozens of abandoned Tube stations, platforms and tunnels – over seventy. Many were built but never used, others didn’t get the passenger traffic which justified keeping them open. Some aren’t even that old – at Charing Cross there are several platforms abandoned in 1999 when the Jubilee line extended down to Waterloo from Green Park.
A railway for post – the Post Office used to have its own underground system which was used for getting letters around the city in a timely manner. It was known as the Mail Rail, and they only stopped using it in 2003.
Government Bunkers – the establishment has built miles and miles of tunnels around London, connecting important buildings together and giving safe and secret passage between key sites. This includes the rooms underneath Whitehall where the COBRA crisis committee still meet, and a tunnel which is rumoured to go to Buckingham Palace. There are also numerous bunkers built in the Cold War, one of which stretches extensively underneath Holborn and has living accommodation for around 80 people.
Tunnels under the Thames – there are now over twenty which cross underneath the river. The first was built in 1840 and you can still use the gloomy foot tunnel at Greenwich – just try not to think about all that water just above your head.
Rivers – as the city grew, most of the many tributaries of the Thames (and there are 13 of them!) became buried deep under the streets, leaving just a few street names to show where they are. One of the largest was the Fleet, which used to allow boats to travel as far north as Kings Cross.
Sewers – the Victorians put their considerable engineering talent to good use in building Joseph Bazalgette’s extensive sewer network under London, and many of the vaulted tunnels and arches are still in use today. But as the network was modernised with newer, bigger tunnels, some of the old chambers and pumping stations were abandoned and are now only used by the rats.
The dead – as well as the well documented and preserved cemeteries around the city, there are plenty of Plague Pits which were dug so that the thousands of plague victims could be buried in a hurry. There is a huge number of them. One, close by to St Bride’s church (which is itself built on top of Roman ruins) was excavated after the war and found to contain over 600 bodies. Another huge one is under Golden Square in Soho, and frankly, if you’re in the old part of London, you’ll be walking over them all the time.
Treasure – there are several places where treasure can be found – the Bank of England has an extensive tunnel network where it holds the country’s gold reserves, and in Chancery Lane the public is allowed into the London Silver Vaults, where, several storeys down and behind a huge reinforced door there are streets of shops selling nothing but silver. There is also a rumour that one army regiment, no longer able to secure insurance for its vast collection of silverware, buried it in a bunker and concreted up the door.
Roman ruins – the Romans left some of the first durable evidence of the inhabitation of London, and much of it was rediscovered when the city was being rebuilt after the war. Previous generations had little regard for archaeology, and regularly destroyed what they found. In 1865, workmen digging in Oxford Street uncovered a trapdoor in the ground. Underneath were 16 steps leading to a large vaulted brick chamber, in the middle of which was a stone bath with a spring still bubbling up into it. Abandoned by the Romans, it’s probable that no-one had been in that room for over a thousand years, but the Victorian workmen cleared it to make way for their building.
Prisons – There are numerous cells and catacombs which have been used as prisons over the years, from the depths of the Tower of London to the Clerkenwell House of Detention, and the infamous Fleet Tower which sat on one of the islands in the River Fleet for 800 years until it was demolished in 1845. Did they fill in all those cells, or do some still remain deep under the streets of London? And did they empty them first?
So when you walk around London you should always look up to admire the rooflines and the beautifully carved stonework, but you should also tread carefully. You never know what might be beneath.
With thanks to Peter Ackroyd’s London Under, particularly for number 9, which I love, and –
King William Street Station www.abandonedstations.org.uk
Kingsway tunnel picture from the London Museum
London Silver Vaults from www.londonist.com