Jonathan Meades

Going Underground

The Tunnel Through Time: A New Route for an Old London Journey

By Gillian Tindall

Chatto & Windus 306pp £20 order from our bookshop

Crossrail, which will eventually come to be known as the Elizabeth Line, is currently an accursed presence in central London, the most massive obstruction to traffic in an agglomeration doldrummed by such obstructions. The area around Centre Point is perpetually chaotic. Gillian Tindall’s bien-pensant contempt for that building is undermined by her getting the architect’s given name wrong: Colonel Seifert was Richard not Robert (the actual designer was George Marsh). It is hardly astonishing that she should be unsympathetic to buildings that rise high above the land, for her bias is firmly towards all that is subterranean, hidden, buried, cavernous. Priest-holes and secret passages, covert rivers, the compressed remains of forgotten houses and, fine phrase, ‘vestigial human matter’ – these whet her appetite. They fire a compulsion to explain in the most minute detail and to link the past to the present. Tindall is, of course, not the only writer to be so preoccupied. There is no burgh in Britain without its complement of burrowing ‘local’ historians, archaeologists and geologists, recounting their troves to anyone who’ll listen. What differentiates Tindall from these is the sheer scale of her enterprise and the breadth of her knowledge, which stray far beyond the ‘local’. She employs disciplines more commonly used in the study of tumuli or crypts or (increasingly) Second World War bunkers to scrutinise the route of Crossrail, the largest infrastructure project in Europe, in what was, until a few months ago, the major city in Europe. It is salutary to note that between his two stints as mayor of London in 1283 and 1298, Henry Waleys (aka le Wallais) served as mayor of Bordeaux.

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