London Under (Review)

London Under (Review)

nyone who’s played a game within the last 40 years probably knows about D&D (Dungeons and Dragons). In its most basic form, players take the role of magic users and warriors and travel into the dungeon of a castle long swept away, to fight all the monsters who horde treasure therein.

Economically, it makes no sense. Biologically, it makes no sense. Rationally, it’s a joke. But it’s still fun.

But while a dungeon chock full of monsters who understand economic principles (and, seemingly, doorknobs) seems unlikely, equally unlikely are the places that exist beneath London. The remnants of old streets from Roman times. Ancient vaults, crypts, and cells. Passageways chiseled for purposes unknown. Even rivers, redirected beneath the streets to ease their passage (and stench).

And now the London Underground. And bomb shelters and redoubts from World War Two. And all those telecommunication lines, water lines, gas lines.


As a game designer, I think this would be a better game than silly old D&D. Rumors of cavemen from prehistoric times, of tribes driven under by the great fire, of cockroaches the size of your arm and rats the size of small ponies. Imagine the encounter tables!

So, yes, Peter Achroyd’s fine book Under London was a delight to read. I picked it up in a used bookshop in Easton Pa while haunting about, killing time. Read a good chunk of it waiting for the bike shop to open. It works logically through its materials, briefly discussing London and its history (and belowground geography). Then we read about the first raw sewers and underground cells. The rising of the ground (through the gradual collection of dirt and filth) lifts the city, making first floors into cellars. Rivers are vaulted over. Then there is a good deal of information about bringing water in (as the population expands) and (well after the fact) taking it back out again. For me, I was quite interested in the section on the tube, including the stations build, abandoned, and in some cases, forgotten. A very fun book!

So, if you are standing around in bike shorts on a cold April day inside a tiny little bookshop, look this one up. Only don’t try this in Easton – I already got that one!