Friday, 26 June 2009

Underground England by Stephen Smith

Underground England, subtitled Travels beneath our Cities and Countryside, is exactly what it says. Stephen Smith is a journalist and has written a book about his visits to various underground parts of the Great Britain, both natural and man-made. This was actually passed on to me by Dylan's dad and he was adamant I would like it. Honestly, I was dubious. I could see how he would like it, having an archaeology degree, but I wasn't sure. But I was pleasantly surprised.

So having agreed to read it, I still expected not to like this, and I expected it to be all about caves. I went caving once on an outward bound week with school and I hated it! But there was actually only one chapter about caving, and even that was made humorous with a description of sliding through an access known as The Letterbox, obviously because of its size. The author goes on to talk about all sorts of underground structures, such as tunnels, Sutton Hoo, villages flooded for reservoirs, caves incorporated into family homes, secret underground bunkers, caves used for strange esoteric rituals and Frankie Howerd and his wig even make an appearance (actually n the same chapter as the esoteric rituals in the hell fire caves).

I think what made it so readable and enjoyable is the authors chatty writing style, and the fact that he is by no mean an expert on these things. He is just interested and visiting places that appeal to him. And he could be quite funny at times. For example, talking about a decommissioned nuclear bunker deep below the Dover cliffs, he says,

"Who was the genius, after all, who decided it would be a good idea to situate a nuclear bunker in porous, breathable chalk-the real reason, surely, why the top brass and the permanent secretaries turned off the lights and tiptoed away?"

This book is not so much about the underground structures themselves, but about the people who used, inhabited and built them and the stories that have grown up around them. For example, in the chapter on priest holes, not only do we learn where they were built, we learn why, and by who, and the lengths people would go to to hide priests. And when he visits the drowned town at Mardale, now Haweswater reservoir, he walks the corpse road, the road that the dead of Mardale had to be transported along to reach the nearest consecrated ground.

This was a fascinating book, not only to learn about some of the underground world that exists in this country, but also as a book about the past and how it leaves it's mark on the present if only you know where and how to look.


farmlanebooks said...

This book doesn't appeal to me either, but having read your review I might be tempted to flick through a copy at the library - who knows that might lead me to bringing a copy home to read. Thank you for drawing my attention to a book I'd never normally look at.

Anonymous said...

I remember hearing Stephen Smith talking on the radio about Underground london a few years ago. It wasn't something I was that interested in but he made it fascinating, which is a great sign for an author. So I'll definitely pick up this one and have a closer look if I get the chance.