Enchanted Ground

London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City, by Tom Chivers

London Clay

All my life I have had recurring dreams of paths, of underground tunnels and caves, of the liminal space between land and water. And so I am drawn to explorations in prose of these places, other writers’ experiences. London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City is one of these books.

But it is more than a record of author Tom Chivers’ experiences in exploring what lies beneath the ever-changing city – the layers of history and prehistory exposed by construction, reimagined from old maps, seen in the lines of minor streets. (This too attracted me to the book, landscape history and archeology, as many of you reading this will know, is an avocation of mine.) London Clay chronicles the author’s experiences in the wastegrounds of London – sometimes literally in sewers, sometimes in the abandoned expanses of what was once the industrial docklands, sometimes in the sterility of modern developments, as he searches for traces of the past.

London Clay kept me both entranced and contemplative, thinking of what lies under other cities I know – York, Seattle, my own. History both visible and invisible, traces left from names we know and names we don’t. Throughout the book, Chivers returns to holes: entrance places into the underground pushed up by geology or dug down by humans through the London Clay of the title. Like Orpheus, he goes down into the dark, returning with only shards and shadows and stories to tell – both of London and himself. In his own words:

London is enchanted ground…a glorious hyperreality: a hundred million possible Londons, present and past, imagined, intended, forgotten and reborn. Time is all around us….

I had set out, armed with a tattered map, to discover what lies beneath the streets. But I have found myself descending deeper into the layers of my own life than I had expected…

As I embark on a modest project on the history of the city on which I live – not a book, simply a collection of articles for our community newsletter, only some of which I will write – I cannot help but think Chivers’ book will influence it. Mine is a much smaller city, and much younger, its visible history easier to find. An intended city, imagined on paper, planned. But it too has the past hidden below what is seen today, and I can’t look at it the same way as I would have before reading London Clay.

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