Book of the week: The Tunnel Through Time

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

The Tunnel Through Time by Gillian Tindall
(Chatto & Windus, £20)

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 The 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.

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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.