From HG Wells and Jules Verne to a history of the London tube, the author digs out the very best in underground reading
1953 – A London Underground tunnel cleaner approaching a station on foot.
Stephen Smith is a writer, journalist and broadcaster, and is culture correspondent for BBC Newsnight. He is the author of several books, including Cuba: Land of Miracles and Underground London.
His new book, Underground England, travels the length, breadth and depth of the country in search of wonders both natural and man-made, from smugglers’ tunnels to Knights Templar chapels.
“Just about the most counter-productive thing you can say to another human being is “Don’t look down!” Tate Modern has never seen crowds like it had for Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, a crack in the ground that visitors couldn’t resist lowering a foot – or a face – into. I suspect that my interest in the subterranean began in the subconscious, in an attempt to answer the question at the back of all our minds: what’s down there?
“Day to day, we orientate ourselves in what you might call a lateral fashion: let’s meet at the pub next to the park, and so on. But I’m fascinated by the under-explored vertical dimension of our surroundings. How much more intriguing to consider what is under the pub – perhaps a secret tunnel once used by the highwayman Dick Turpin in order to stay one step ahead of his pursuers (as is rumoured to be the case at Jack Straw’s Castle pub on Hampstead Heath). You could be forgiven for thinking that this is an underground interest in more ways than one. So I thought I’d dig out a few gems from my troglodyte treasury, to show you that many distinguished authors have sunk to startling depths to produce books about the subterranean.”
1. Moonfleet by J Meade Falkner
Smuggling was practised not only on the Spanish Main but around our sceptr’d Isle. At New Brighton, Merseyside, where my family is from, the privateers salted their booty away beneath the butter-soft sandstone. Moonfleet contains my cri de coeur: “I believe there never was a boy yet who saw a hole in the ground, or a cave in a hill, or much more an underground passage, but longed incontinently to be into it and discover whither it led.”
2. Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
Jules Verne’s evergreen page-turner is a reminder that the best adventures may be right under our noses, or rather the soles of our feet. The author described the breathtaking feats of underground engineering achieved by the natural world: “a succession of arches appeared before us like the aisles of a Gothic cathedral; here the architects of the Middle Ages might have studied all the forms of that religious architecture which developed from the pointed arch.”
3. The Underground Man by Mick Jackson
A man in Hackney, east London, was recently dubbed the Mole Man for tunnelling under his neighbours’ houses. Mick Jackson’s real-life model for this novel, the fifth Duke of Portland, was a Mole Man born to the ermine (not inappropriately, you may think, as ermine like to burrow.) He created a sunken ballroom under his ducal seat. He insisted that his servants kept a chicken roasting at all hours of the day, and had it brought to him on heated wagons through underground passages. Jackson brilliantly ventriloquises his lordship in this novel, but the truth is unfathomably stranger than fiction.
4. The Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar
The history of the London tube, the first underground train network in the world. Dirty, stuffy, run for the benefit of private business rather than the poor bloody passengers – and it was just as bad when it started! Christian Wolmar knows more about the railways than the men who run them – on second thoughts, that’s not quite the compliment it was intended to be.
5. The Lore of the Land by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson
Though not confined to the subterranean, this essential gazetteer of folklore is chokka with secret passages, buried treasure and the strange tolling of sunken church bells. The book shows that the same myths recur around the country, including the legend of the plucky violinist who enters a forbidding tunnel. The music suddenly stops and the fiddler’s never heard of again. A veritable Crufts of shaggy dog stories.
6. Haweswater by Sarah Hall
Sarah Hall’s justly praised debut novel is set in the lost village of Mardale in the Lake District. It was so cut off that when anyone died, the body was carried over the fells on a Corpse Road to the nearest graveyard. Mardale finally got its own consecrated plot, but then it was decided to submerge the whole village under Haweswater to create a reservoir. So the dead of Mardale were dug up and taken to join their ancestors. On hot summer days, the dry stone walls of Mardale eerily reappear.
7. The Dig by John Preston
For years, people wondered what was in the extraordinary burrows at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. They were on land owned by the wealthy Edith Pretty. A clairvoyant told her that her late husband wanted the mounds excavated. The task fell not to Tony Robinson and the gadget-toting Time Team but a horny-handed countryman called Basil Brown, who uncovered the remains of an Anglo-Saxon king. Preston’s novel is a deft excavation of the class snobberies surrounding the historic 1930s dig.
8. Selected Caves of Britain and Ireland by Des Marshall & Donald Rust
The Baedeker of the below-ground world, this is a must for cavers, an excellent primer for novices and deliciously gooseflesh-raising for those who haven’t the slightest intention of going anywhere near a pothole. It was my invaluable companion on a descent of Long Churn in the Yorkshire Dales, which was first tamed in 1848 by “J Birkbeck and party” and is described in this Michelin guide to Middle Earth as “a fine though heavily used cave”.
9. A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain by Daniel Defoe
“Nottingham is situated upon the steep ascent of a sandy rock; which is consequently remarkable, for that it is so soft that they easily work into it for making vaults and cellars,” wrote Defoe. “The bountiful inhabitants generally keep these cellars well stocked with excellent ALE; nor are they uncommunicative in bestowing it among their friends.” Knowing that the great Defoe had been there before me enhanced my pleasure in keeping alive the tradition of troglodyte tippling in Nottingham, at a pub called The Trip to Jerusalem which was quarried out of the city’s Castle Rock.
10. The Time Machine by HG Wells
One of the finest works of science fiction set in the subterranean. In the dystopian future imagined by Wells, the Morlocks are a race who lived below ground. In researching my book, I was amazed to find that some of my fellow countrymen have made similar lifestyle choices to the Morlocks. It’s no slight on the good people of Wolverley in the West Midlands to say that they’re cavemen. There, a des res called Rock House was on the market, carved out of a cliff face and a snip at £25,000.