SECRET UNDERGROUND LONDON
by Nick Catford


Isbn:  9780956440570   Published  May 2013
Hardback,  250mm x 250mm  282pp.
414 photographs,  50 plans and drawings

For the last thirty years Trench & Hillman’s  London Under London has remained the unsurpassed authority on subterranean London but today it seems distinctly dated and, in many instances, factually incorrect.  In more recent years a number of other books have been published on the same subject but, sadly, most have been thoroughly disappointing.  Anthony Clayton’s Subterranean City (2010) was perhaps the best of the bunch, but focusses too much on the reasons why the capital’s underground infrastructure was created and is rather light on descriptions (or illustrations) of the city’s varied underground architecture.

Of the others,  Peter Ackroyd’s London Under, launched in 2012 with so much anticipation and acclaim, has been variously described by the critics as thin, uninspiring, dumbed-down and ‘written in a hurry with little enthusiasm’.   Similarly Alan Brooke’s little 48-page book Under London, published in 2012, and Stephen Smith’s lightweight, vague and journalistic Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets of 2005, have met with generally negative reviews from both the press and the general reading public.  Nor has Fiona Rule’s London’s Labyrinth, published in 2012, been particularly well received, particularly when compared with her truly excellent earlier works on London,  The Worst Street In London and  London’s Docklands.

The downfall with all these books, apart from their often woolly texts, is the paucity of adequate illustrations – both photographs and location plans – which are essential in this visual age, particularly where the sites described are not generally open to public view.  And it is here that Nick Catford, in collaboration with Folly Books, continues to excel with the recent publication of his new title Secret Underground London.  This is the third book that Nick has done with Folly Books and is arguably the best so far.  Produced in the same 250 x 250mm format as his earlier Cold War Bunkers and Burlington: the Government War Headquarters at CorshamSecret Underground London extends to 282 pages (the earlier titles were only 224 pages) , and is packed with an astonishing collection of well in excess of 400 photographs, almost all in colour, and some fifty beautifully produced plans and drawings especially prepared by Folly Books editorial staff or by Sub Brit’s Tim Robinson. 

Just about every aspect of underground London is encompassed by this book with the exception of the city’s underground rivers which, as the author states in the introduction, are distinctly un-photogenic and are anyway already comprehensively dealt with in Paul Tilling’s London’s Lost Rivers.   Similarly the Victorian sewage system, which has figured largely in many earlier publications, is only described in outline although one particularly unusual feature, the Abbey Mills pumping station and its underground boilerhouse and coal vaults, has a chapter to itself.  Seventy-five pages are dedicated to disused tube station with stunning contemporary photo’s which beautifully complement the earlier, archive photographs seen in J.E. Connor’s excellent books on the subject.   A further fifty-five pages illustrate other, less well-known subterranean railway locations, including what is probably the first authoritative account of the Camden Horse Tunnels and beer vaults.  Twenty-five pages of photographs illustrate the Deep Level Tube Shelters while two further chapters cover other air-raid shelters,  large and small.  Almost half the book is dedicated to the sinister collection of Second World War and Cold War control centres and other secret government bunkers which lurk beneath the city streets,  to virtually all of which – somewhat surprisingly – Nick has been allowed access in order to produce this truly astonishing photographic record.

There is much else too, from cemetery catacombs to the Thames Barrier service tunnels,  which space doesn’t allow for inclusion in this review,  but mention must be made of the extensive chapter on the Surrey Stone Quarries.   The ramified network of long-abandoned quarry workings in the Godstone, Chaldon and Merstham areas are little known outside a select few explorers and local historians and the stunning selection of photographs included here will perhaps be something of an eye-opener to many readers. The quarry at Godstone has plates from the former Croydon Merstham & Godstone Railway still in situ. They have a double relevance to London, for not only are they underground within the geographical boundary set for this book, but they also provided the stone from which much of early London was built.

Secret Underground London can be ordered from the author at £24.99 plus £2.75 postage (signed on request). Send cheques to Nick Catford, 13 Highcroft Cottages, London Road, Swanley, Kent, BR8 8DB or pay by Pay Pal (£25.99 includes Pay Pal fee + £2.75 posatage) to nick@catford.orangehome.co.uk. Overseas postage rates available on request.


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