What would London look like if you erased the buildings and deleted all the roads?
London sprawls across a prehistorical patchwork of hills and river valleys. They helped to shape the early city, and still affect its development today. Yet how often do we notice these dips and humps in the hurly-burly of city life? And what might we learn about London if we did pay attention to its geology?
One person who knows is Tom Chivers. Years ago, Chivers spread a street map over his bedroom floor and started colouring in the different strata — the silts, clays and gravels that underly our city.
He's since spent years tracing London's hidden landscape armed only with his home-made geology map, a pair of well-worn shoes, and a heightened sense of curiosity. His new book, London Clay, presents his discoveries in a delicious tome of topology.
Of course, others have passed this way before. The 'lost' rivers of London have been particularly well chronicled, in several recent books, a major exhibition, a series of novels and even a video series on Londonist. But such is the allure of the Fleet, Tyburn, Effra and Peck that new accounts are sure to keep flowing.
Chivers's angle is to, well, come at it from every angle. He follows lost rivers, for sure, but he also weaves in his own personal history, chats to people on route, dives into the archives, dabbles in gonzo cartography and even goes for a paddle in the Fleet itself.
You only have to browse through the index to sense that you're in for a treat. Entries include such evocative place names as Black Mary's Hole, Penge Peak, the Neckinger, Thorney Island, Hatchett's Bottom and the Rockingham Anomaly. The latter is a weird bit of geology close to Elephant and Castle, a protean part of London that crops up time and again. Elsewhere, Chivers spends considerable time exploring the landscapes of Whitechapel, the Walbrook Valley (in the City), Westminster, Rotherhithe, the lower Lea Valley and his childhood neighbourhood of Herne Hill.
With his poet's knack of forging unlikely connections, Chivers has put together one of the most enjoyable books about the capital in years. Here we have human stories and we have geological stories; flesh and clay; a literary golem. And it works beautifully. Books on London's 'psychogeography' all too often meander off on flights of unwanted fancy, but Chivers keeps a tight reign on his narrative. You won't get bogged down in London Clay, but you'll surely be sucked in.
And, more than simply a cracking read, it's a book that will inspire you to go out and make your own discoveries. You'll never look at the city in the same way again.