Underground London

In the rush of a modern city, who pauses to ponder what exists beneath?

What lies beneath has an ominous aspect to us ground dwellers. We appreciate being able to see a horizon; even better if it’s one with a bit of height thrown in. We are, after all, descended from apes who lived in the trees—hence, our Tower of Babelesque obsession with taller and taller buildings stretching toward the heavens. The living aren’t meant to linger underground—that’s the terrain of the dead, where the Greek hero and adventurer Odysseus cuts a trench a cubit long and a cubit broad into which he pours dark blood from the slit throats of sacrificial animals to summon the ghosts of friends and comrades killed at Troy. But despite the gloomy overtures, it is worth paying more attention to what lies underneath the streets we tread.

“Increase your understanding of what is happening under your feet right now, because the ongoing conversation about public space does not stop at the manhole cover,” writes Bradley Garrett, an American academic and expert on the urban environment who has been venturing into forbidden parts of cities since he was a teenager. Garrett recommends delving into the sewers, utility tunnels and abandoned Tube stations.

He counts himself as one of a growing number of urban explorers around the world—now numbering in the thousands, he says—who strive to access the neglected, forgotten, closed and hidden areas of cities. He emphasizes that there needs to be more of an “attentiveness to space,” as seen when Victorian Londoners used to tour urban infrastructure—even sewage pumping stations—curious to know how it all functioned.

But today’s urban dwellers, Garrett notes, are far less interested in what happens when they flush the toilet, make a phone call or put out the trash, and what sorts of processes those actions trigger, as well as what physical spaces are required to facilitate such responsive processes. This man-made ecosystem is especially complicated and varied in a city as historic, large and varied as London, underneath whose pavements snarls a labyrinth of tunnels, pipes, wires and rails—some abandoned, much of them active and essential to the city’s functionality; they are arteries to its figurative heart.

Archaeologists excavate a charred layer from London’s Great Fire
Photo credit: Museum of London Archaeology

In his book London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets, author Peter Ackroyd is full of praise for Joseph Bazalgette, the city engineer who after the “great stink of 1858”—when the unseasonably hot summer weather exacerbated the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent that was ever present on the banks of the River Thames—devised the sewer system largely still in use under London today. Ackroyd places Bazalgette in the same pantheon of London builders such as Sir Christopher Wren (Saint Paul’s Cathedral) and John Nash (Marble Arch and Buckingham Palace) for building his own type of cathedral under the ground, as little-appreciated as it might be by the contemporary masses.

Nowadays, the city’s most well-known subterranean institution is the London Underground, more popularly known as The Tube, the world’s first underground passenger railway that opened in January 1863. Now comprising 11 lines covering 250 miles and serving 270 stations, The Tube handles up to 5 million passenger journeys per day.

It’s infamous for its overcrowding at rush hour, and most commuters can’t wait to escape above ground (having once again been reminded of the perils of subterranean existence). But in World War II, tens of thousands of Londoners sought refuge in the Underground from German bombs falling on the city. To prevent overcrowding and daily onslaughts of those seeking safety, officials outfitted the shelters with bunks and distributed numbered tickets to gain access. An alternative underground city emerged, complete with its own newspapers. But the Underground has rather stolen the limelight from what else lies under the city, especially given how over the course of centuries, a layering upon layering process occurs as a natural part of a city’s growth and development.

Underneath London snarls a labyrinth of tunnels, pipes, wires and rails—some abandoned, much of them active and essential to the city’s functionality.

“Due to the topography around London, in some parts there’s as much as twelve meters of stratification,” Sadie Watson, an archaeologist from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), tells Stranger’s Guide. She notes that some layers within this are especially distinct, such as a particularly red strand that speaks to when Boudicca, a queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe, led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in AD 60 and torched London, burning it to the ground.

The urban colossus that is modern London is actually, technically, sinking under its weight, and as it does, all the previous incarnations of “London” before it are rising up, revealing Roman amphitheaters, taverns, temples and ships.

But the previous iterations of London are not entirely compressed. “Places get trapped between successive layers of modernization or redevelopment, so you end up with these spaces left over after planning that are effectively glitches or bubbles between different layers of urbanization,” says Theo Kindynis, a criminologist whose research and writing addresses the interrelationships between urban space, lawbreaking and social control. “What’s interesting is that these spaces become sort of inadvertent time capsules, lost repositories of material culture that are often bricked up or buried and forgotten about.” Even worse, he notes, they may be lost forever: “Tunnel boring machines chew and churn their way through the urban substrata, consigning countless other fragments of broken time to the spoil tip [dumpster].”

Excavation of Shakespearean theatre, the Curtain Playhouse

Photo credit: Museum of London Archaeology

Recent construction of additional transport systems across the city has hinted at the scale of underground London. Excavation works that took place in 2013 and 2014 during the Crossrail construction of the new Elizabeth train line across the city, and through an additional 13 miles of tunnels, gave archaeologists a unique opportunity to explore the earth underneath London’s streets that was previously seen as inaccessible. The result was one of the most extensive archaeological programs ever seen in the UK. Over 100 archaeologists found more than 10,000 artifacts spanning fifty-five million years of the city’s past across over forty construction sites. Some of the most notable finds included medieval ice skates, bison and reindeer bones dating back to about 68,000 years, part of a small barge or fishing vessel from 1223 to 1290, a Tudor bowling ball, a Victorian chamber pot, 13,000 Victorian Mason-style jars, and the largest piece of amber ever found in the UK.

Excavations for the New Liverpool Street Crossrail station site unearthed skeletons from the former Bedlam burial ground that was in use from 1569 to at least 1738, spanning the beginning of the British Empire, civil wars, Shakespeare’s plays, the Great Fire of London and various plague outbreaks. After the skeletons were excavated, they were studied for clues to how Londoners lived through these ages before being reburied in a new consecrated site, after which the archaeologists continued to dig through medieval marsh deposits and the remains of a Roman road under the site. They discovered Roman artifacts such as horseshoes, cremation urns, coins and a medallion issued to mark the New Year celebrations in AD 245, only the second ever of its kind to be found. Getting a better handle on the past is a crucial component in coming to a better understanding of what we stand on today, argues Bradley Garrett.

Archaeologists found more than 10,000 artifacts spanning fifty-five million years of the city’s past.

Garrett’s 2014 book Subterranean London: Cracking the Capital featured a collection of unique images from beneath London’s streets. “The photography of hidden places that explorers undertake … is an attempt to create a visual mark of the present, with reference to what came before, what will come after, and how it is all connected through us,” he writes. “Explorations behind the scenes show us that a city is not a collection of isolated locations but a beautifully and delicately threaded tapestry.”

In London’s case, it’s not just what lies beneath the Tarmac. When the tide is out, the River Thames that flows through the heart of the city is an open-air archaeological site, and much of the foreshore is freely accessible to the public. Discoveries at the smaller end of the scale range from clay pipes and pottery fragments dating as far back as prehistoric periods to flint tools, animal—and occasionally human—bone, trading tokens and coins.

Excavation on the banks of the River Thames.
Photo credit: Museum of London Archaeology

According to Royal Museums Greenwich, more substantial discoveries have included ancient archaeological remains at sites from Greenwich to Putney; “Anglo-Saxon fish traps, the remains of Medieval, Tudor and Stuart jetties; re-used warship timbers, river defenses, stairs, causeways, slipways, wharves, crane bases, bargebeds, drains and vessels.”

“There has been considerable encroachment on the banks of the River in the urban area and so much of the remains of the early Roman and Medieval harbor and waterfront, warehouses, bridge abutments, ancient foreshore and vessel fragments, lie underneath the Thames waterfront walk,” says Gustav​ Milne with CITiZAN, the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network. “These waterfront sites were very deeply stratified, maybe five meters deep, and were still waterlogged, and thus very rich in artifacts—not just pottery, but wooden structures, still standing two meters high, and metal and leather objects in remarkable condition. [You can see] the amazing displays in the Museum of London Roman and Medieval Galleries.”

Today, the Thames is a shadow of its former self in terms of the traffic and trade that once plied it. Hence the river remains at the back of most Londoners’ minds—until it floods, Watson notes, when we are reminded that London is a city “perched on the banks of a natural phenomenon, which is far from as tamed and benign as we like to think.” She notes how the river can shift six meters in height between high and low tide, one of the largest variants in any European city.

In his seminal 2007 book The World Without US, Alan Weisman describes how it wouldn’t take long for a city to deteriorate if we were no longer there maintaining it. In just days, flooding tunnels under the likes of London and New York would start eroding the city foundations. Without a human presence our massive infrastructures would collapse and finally vanish, Weisman says, with asphalt jungles giving way to real ones. Increasing environmental concerns indicate such an ominous future is more of a possibility, while previous man-made disasters have already played their part in stitching together what happens beneath London’s streets.

The River Thames is an open-air archaeological site, and much of the foreshore is freely accessible to the public.

The Cabinet War Rooms are a historic underground complex beneath the Treasury building in London’s Whitehall area that housed a British government command center throughout WWII. After the end of the war, the rooms became redundant and were abandoned until they were opened to the public in 1984. But other government-built subterranean locations often remain closed. The Kingsway Telephone Exchange was a former air-raid shelter under Chancery Lane before it became the termination point for the first submarine transatlantic telephone cables, a system meant to protect the vital connective tissue of the city in the event of attacks from the sky, including nuclear. Stretching for miles, it had only three surface entrances and contained a bar for workers on their off hours, rumored to be the UK’s deepest place for a pint at almost 200 feet below the street. It remains closed off and unused, though when Garrett snuck in, he was surprised to find the electricity on wherever he went, leaving him wondering who changes the light bulbs.

There can be legal implications, though, as “exploration” is often interpreted as “trespassing.” Garrett’s ventures under London—and disseminating pictures of his findings on social media—led to a charge of conspiring to commit criminal damage. (He was let off with a conditional discharge.)

But how many of the millions of frantic Oxford Street shoppers are aware of rumors of an entire Victorian Street existing beneath the pavements, perfectly preserved and frozen in time, accessed via the cellars and basements underneath Selfridges and Forever 21.

History can still enlighten us without us having to risk arrest by entering London’s illicit underground world. MOLA’s Sadie Watson highlights London’s giant second-century Roman Amphitheater that could seat 40,000 and whose foundations still remain under Guildhall Yard, a well-known and centuries-old piece of government architecture that now houses an art gallery. After the Romans abandoned London, the amphitheater lay unused for 300 years until the Anglo-Saxon kings occupied it. Watson says the amphitheater speaks to us—as it probably did to those kings also—of a time of occupation, but also how London wasn’t just a military site for the Romans, but a city of trade, commerce and migration, with people coming from all over the Roman Empire to set up businesses and join the endeavor (lending an interesting angle on the current Brexit process). Were we to also pause to wonder what we walk on, we might also consider what may be built over where we walk now, in the far future, and how our existence and current urban development will be viewed then.

“Perhaps in decades or centuries to come, others will stalk these tunnels–future ruins of subterranean London–asking questions of discarded hi-vis vests, [graffiti] tags dated ‘2020,’ the scrawlings of bored track workers preserved written in the dust and the detritus of a capitalist metropolis,” Theo Kindynis writes in his article Excavating Ghosts: Urban exploration as graffiti archaeology. “In the meantime, more quotidian encounters with the past can be sought throughout the city–above and below. Scattered fragments of the past–residual anomalies– haunt the homogenous ‘city of glass’ in spite of planners’ desires for an urban [clean slate].”

Then again, perhaps by then we will be in cities of the sky, looking down on a decrepit landscape of dilapidated, abandoned cities below. Who knows?

Archaeologists on the Tideway site at Chamber’s Wharf.

Photo credit: Museum of London Archaeology


James Jeffrey

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media.

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