vol 4 issue 6

Deep thoughts

7 April 2009
By Dominic Lenton
Share |

The follow-up to an account of life below London finds underground marvels all over England. E&T met the author.

Almost 40 years after the Apollo 11 mission took people as far as they've been able to travel and return to tell the tale, it's worth remembering that even the most developed countries on terra firma have places that have been barely explored. You just need to look under your feet.

"There are remote parts of Yorkshire cave systems where fewer people have stood than have walked on the Moon," points out Stephen Smith, who with the publication next month of 'Underground England' continues the theme begun in his 2004 bestseller 'Underground London'.

Smith's fascination with the subterranean began as a kind of aversion therapy when he returned to the capital to work for Channel 4 News after a spell living in the wide open spaces of the Yorkshire countryside.

"I found it a real culture shock to be on the London Underground in the mornings. I was semi-phobic about it and would try to stand by the door or the window. At the same time I was looking at the tube map and comparing it with the A to Z, thinking it's great but it doesn't tell us much about what's down here."

His solution - spending nights in the tunnels with maintenance crews and travelling alongside drivers in the cabs of tube trains - prompted a fascination with the relationship between the streets we're familiar with and the world below the city.

"You think you know a place on the surface but there's so much going on underneath that you wouldn't be conscious of. I like that sort of continuum. We're used to thinking this building is next to that building, which is next to that building, but what about what's underneath it?"

The answer, in many cases, is some sophisticated engineering. Take the Victorian coal wagon tunnel running under the centre of Newcastle, which Smith explores in his new book. Built so that coal could be transported to the city's docks without clogging up the streets, it remains in good condition. But because it's out of sight it's simply never established itself as a landmark in the public consciousness.

As Smith says: "You can be standing by a discount warehouse and the tunnel's below you, but no one would know."

Smith is regularly seen on TV in the UK in his role as culture correspondent for the BBC's 'Newsnight'. The son of a civil engineer, he admits some of his interest in 'hidden' engineering can be traced back to childhood holidays in Scotland which were punctuated by trips into the countryside to see the remote dams his father had helped build.

And while some of the places he visited around the country are natural features that have been exploited over the years for practical, or in the case of caving, recreational, purposes, there are many that represent outstanding feats of engineering.

At one extreme are the tiny priest holes built into Catholic homes in the 16th century to provide a place where visiting clerics could conceal themselves for days at a time. "They're really ingenious. The James Bond stuff of their day," says Smith.

At the other are huge projects like the 1.5 mile Mersey Tunnel in north west England, the military complex dug below Dover Castle in the south east during the Second World War. Smith went behind the scenes at both, and at the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in west Sussex where botanists are taking advantage of the fact that temperature and humidity can be more easily controlled underground to create a collection of every seed on Earth.

Anyone inspired by the books to venture out on their own explorations might end up disappointed. The tightening up of security prompted by an increased awareness of how vulnerable underground sites are to terrorist attack means the inquisitive member of the public can no longer rely on being able to wander in and out.

"It's all very difficult now," he warns. "When I was doing the London book there were restrictions, and that was before the London bombings of 7 July 2005. Even something like walking through the service tunnel of the Thames Barrier took quite a lot of negotiation because it's obviously a key strategic point."

If there's an up side to the political and economic situation at the start of the 21st century, however, it's that industrial historians are getting more time to work in when excavations unearth something significant. In better times, these "firemen of history" as Smith describes them would have had to act as quickly as possible. "A building comes down and they rush to the scene; they've only got a small window."

The danger of destroying layers of history below the streets of modern towns and cities is in fact a relatively new phenomenon, Smith explains.

"The Victorians were fairly keen on knocking everything down because it was the new age of steam and industry, But they weren't building tremendously deep foundations because they weren't putting up tower blocks. So what is under their buildings to some extent survives. The danger, archaeologists tell me, is that when you look at some of the skyscrapers that are going up today, they need such deep foundations that if there's a bit of a tiny Tudor cottage, there won't be much there after they've finished."

'Underground England: Travels Beneath Our Cities and Countryside' (hardback, RRP £18.99) is published by Little, Brown on 7 May. E&T readers can purchase at a £2.00 discount (free postage within the UK) by phoning 01832 737525 and quoting LB 079.

Share |
Related forum discussions
forum comment To start a discussion topic about this article, please log in or register.    

Latest Issue

E&T cover image 1606

"Where would Frankenstein and his creative mind fit into today's workplace? Should we fear technological developments or embrace them?"

E&T jobs

  • Graduate Electrical Engineers

    AECOM
    • United Kingdom and Ireland
    • Competitive

    Due to the diverse nature of our business there are many different teams each with very different responsibilities.

    • Recruiter: AECOM

    Apply for this job

  • Network Innovation Engineer / Analyst - UK Power Sector

    Premium job

    Nortech Management Ltd
    • Birmingham, West Midlands or Pershore (Worcestershire)
    • £30,000 - £35,000 (depending on experience) + benefits

    Network Innovation Engineer / Analyst to join a team of talented technology enthusiasts who design and support the low carbon networks of the future.

    • Recruiter: Nortech Management Ltd

    Apply for this job

  • Electrical Engineer with Strong telecoms background

    Premium job

    Sure South Atlantic Ltd
    • Falkland Islands

    Sure South Atlantic Ltd currently has a unique engineering opportunity in their Falkland Islands office. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, teeming ...

    • Recruiter: Sure South Atlantic Ltd

    Apply for this job

  • Cyber, Communication, Information and Data Scientist roles

    Premium job

    Dstl
    • Porton Down, Salisbury
    • Competitive salaries

    Information is everything. Use it to serve your country and help keep us safe.

    • Recruiter: Dstl

    Apply for this job

  • Production Engineer

    Premium job

    Compact Engineering
    • Thirsk / Leeds / Banbury / Colchester / Cambridge
    • Salary will be competitive and commensurate with experience, knowledge, aptitude and capability

    A Production Engineer with some knowledge and understanding of radiant energy transfer.

    • Recruiter: Compact Engineering

    Apply for this job

  • Electronics Engineer

    Premium job

    Nikon Metrology Europe
    • Tring, Hertfordshire

    Nikon Metrology is looking for an Electronics Engineer to join our Electronics Team based in Tring (UK).

    • Recruiter: Nikon Metrology Europe

    Apply for this job

  • Engineering Manager

    BAE Systems
    • Hampshire, England, Portsmouth
    • Competitive package

    Would you like to play a vital role in managing and implementing the correct governance in order to enable BAE Systems to provide assurance and integrity of supply chain data? We currently have a vacancy for an Engineering Manager - Product Integrity

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • Engineering Project Manager - Electrical & Automation

    Nestle
    • York, North Yorkshire
    • c£45,000 + Car Allowance + Bonus + Excellent Benefits

    Nestlé Product Technology Centre in York currently has an excellent opportunity for an Engineering Project Manager

    • Recruiter: Nestle

    Apply for this job

  • Consultant Engineer - Test

    BAE Systems
    • Farnborough, Hampshire, England
    • Negotiable

    Consultant Engineer - Test Would you like to be a lead within an exciting team working on one of the UK's largest defence projects? We currently have a vacancy for a Consultant Engineer - Test at our site in Ash Vale. As a Consultant Engineer - Test, you

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • ELECTRICAL PROJECT ENGINEER

    SSE
    • Reading, Berkshire
    • SALARY: £37,588 TO £55,669 + CAR (SSE8/9), DEPENDING ON SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE

    SSE are looking to recruit an Electrical Project Engineer into office in Reading

    • Recruiter: SSE

    Apply for this job

More jobs ▶

Subscribe

Choose the way you would like to access the latest news and developments in your field.

Subscribe to E&T