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FEATURE: Historian on Crossrail and the tunnels through time

The inaugural trip through the Farringdon tunnel in January 1863

The inaugural trip through the Farringdon tunnel in January 1863

Published: 9 September, 2016
by DAN CARRIER

AS engineers dug deep in to the West End soil, creating huge underground labyrinths for users of the new Crossrail train link, they came across long-forgotten store rooms, sealed decades ago.

The engineers are not only building for London’s future – but also uncovering tantalising glimpses of London’s past and a new book, The Tunnel Through Time, by Kentish Town-based historian Gillian Tindall follows the route of Crossrail, revealing the stories of times gone by that the work has helped unearth.

In Tottenham Court Road, where a vast new ticket hall is being finished beneath Oxford Street at Centre Point, one of the stranger archaeological finds was discovered. Food production company Crosse and Blackwell had bottling works on the east side of Soho Square from the 1850s. While Soho today is associated with restaurants and bars, the sex trade and the film industry, it was once home to industries such as a pickle factory, breweries and ironworks.

“But the Crossrail engineers, excavating a deep basement near the site of the Astoria Theatre, found it full of Crosse and Blackwell pots and jars,” she writes. “Some of them are said to have been still tightly lidded with their preserves intact inside them. Of all the things hidden in London earth that have briefly seen the light of day once more due to Crossrail – numerous human remains, a medieval reservoir, Roman horse’s sandals, skates made from bones, Venetian glass, part of a comic chamber pot – pots of fish paste and pickled onions that are still good to eat are surely among the strangest.”

The stories are packed with incident and detail. We learn about grand homes once in leafy countryside consumed by London’s ever-broadening reach. And when the gallows at Tyburn near Marble Arch where finally taken down, property developers built terraces but despite the location overlooking Hyde Park, they did not sell well. The development was originally named Tyburnia and that was not seen as an attractive moniker to Londoners. 

The historian says her latest book has a direct link to her seminal bestseller, The Fields Beneath. Published 40 years ago next year, it tells the story of Kentish Town – and Gillian says The Tunnel Through Time uses the same formula, taking in a great swathe of London instead of focusing on NW5.

“The Fields Beneath is the story of a little village found on a pack horse route out of London,” she says. “It is about the way this place gradually became a flowery village near London, then was suburban, and then was absorbed. This new book is The Fields Beneath writ large, with many different places rather than just one particular place.”

The Crossrail course is perfect as it traces beneath ground an ancient route on the surface. It is prehistoric, says Gillian. “It was the road to Oxford. It goes through Holborn and the Fleet valley, and around the edge of London.

“The Crossrail line followed very clearly this ancient route. It is logical – it is a straight and direct pathway that takes into account the lay of the land.”

Taking us from Paddington in the west across to Whitechapel and beyond in the east, Gillian stops en route to show what lies beneath.

“New ticket halls are being inserted as boxes not far below the surface of the ground,” she writes. “It is the excava­tion for these, rather than the tunnelling itself, that is giving archaeologists extraordinary and probably unrepeatable opportunities for careful examination of what lies there before it is finally displaced.”

Much of what lies beneath is the buried detritus of what once was human life in the light of day and all its business.

The book started when Gillian went to an exhibition as Crossrail was firming up its plans for the new subterranean railway. Here she persuaded the Crossrail team to give her a series of maps showing where the tunnels were going – and she used these as the basis for the book’s own journey. 

“As soon as the Crossrail map was published, I could see it followed a very old route and went through some key spaces. It was extremely interesting project from a historical point of view,” she says.

“Routes we use today have their basis in deep history – it is a measure of the persistence of geographical habits through time and urban change that the route chosen for Crossrail follows some of the same ancient paths.”

The concept suits the type of history Gillian is known for. Described as a “miniaturist historian”, she is a writer who concentrates her research not on the grand doings of kings and queens but of the fabric of daily life through the centuries.

“I tend to use the stories of a handful of people and a few significant events to give, as Shakespeare wrote, ‘a local habitation and a name’ to significant events and locations. 

“The life of the ordinary individual is how most people experience life. They can relate to that. People respond to this type of history.”

The Tunnel Through Time: A New Route for an Old London Journey. By Gillian Tindall, Chatto and Windus, £20

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