A New Route for an Old London Journey
Chatto & Windus 306pp £20
Crossrail is a high-tech tunnel drilled straight through the heart of London. Gillian Tindall uses it to weave a circuitous path through time and space, inspired by the places through which it passes and the histories its excavations have uncovered, either literally or by reviving memories and stories long forgotten. She moves back and forth across London, alighting most frequently at Paddington, Tottenham Court Road (for St Giles’), Farringdon, Liverpool Street and Stepney (not a Crossrail station, but a major work site, where Crossrail bifurcates to serve both Essex and south-east London). She also moves to and fro through different periods in each area’s past. Starting conventionally enough with travellers arriving in London on foot, Tindall soon turns to Charles Pearson’s ideas for a central station in the heart of the City, scaled down to an underground railway connecting mainline termini. The Metropolitan Railway, opened from Paddington to Farringdon in 1863, shares its original termini with major stopping points for Crossrail, although the two railways follow different routes across central London, the Metropolitan hugging the New Road (London’s 18th-century take on the M25), while Crossrail sticks close to an older west-east route along Oxford Street, Holborn and Whitechapel Road.
In the course of Tindall’s excavations, a lot of death and disease come to the surface: skulls washed down the Walbrook (a ‘lost river’ near Liverpool Street) from a Roman cemetery; medieval and early modern burials of plague victims; sites of martyrdom and public executions at St Giles’, Smithfield, Tyburn and Newgate; leper hospitals; the building and rebuilding of Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam); and more personal stories of deaths from ‘sweating sickness’ or typhus. Indeed, Tindall’s passion is for the details of individual lives and sites: the Colets and their homes in 16th-century Stepney, Lady Alice Dudley in 17th-century St Giles and the teenage diarist John Pocock travelling between Kilburn and Shoreditch in the early 19th century. Alongside these details are perceptive asides – how new roads divided established communities, how ‘slums’ are a necessary part of urban mythology – and visits to Tindall’s own past as young researcher in Stepney, a critic of the excesses of postwar modernist planning and biographer of Victorian novelist George Gissing and 17th-century artist Wenceslaus Hollar.
Tindall is as interested in cities of the mind and the representation of underground and hidden spaces in literature as she is in archaeology and archives. She links our experience of change – of building and rebuilding, of neighbourhoods rising, falling and rising again – with plans (such as Crossrail) and dreams (such as those of William Blake, William Morris and even Edith Nesbit), quoting the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘We have not an abiding city; but we seek after the city that is to come.’ In its meandering structure, The Tunnel Through Time is not a straight-forward read and not without some factual and typographic glitches; but it is a thoughtful and engaging interpretation of London’s history through metaphors of tunnelling and excavation.
Richard Dennis is Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College London.