Book Review: Underground England

England, england, undergroundEngland is a land of countless half-forgotten legends and secret hidden places.

In Underground England: Travels Beneath our Cities and Countryside, Stephen Smith explores these places, worming his way through damp caves and exploring haunted tunnels under crumbling castles. While he starts with natural caves, of which England is blessed with more than its fair share, he soon veers off into man-made places, trying to puzzle out the history hidden beneath a mass of legend.

Smith discovers that the Green and Pleasant Land is in fact the Damp and Dark Honeycomb. Stately homes have secret rooms under the stairs to hide once-illegal Catholic priests. Cold War governments created massive bunkers to save themselves (but not us) from their folly. And there are follies of a different sort–fake grottoes created by the rich and bored, like that of the infamous Hell Fire Club, which Smith reveals as far more notorious than nefarious. Eccentric Englishmen indulging their whims.

A bit like Smith himself. He’s obsessed with anything subterranean, anything weird or hidden. Burrowing under England with him is like being cornered for hours at a country pub by an uncommonly interesting local wit. Even his language fits the bill–a mixture of double entendres, pop culture references, and bizarre words. Lots of bizarre words. Appurtenances? I knew that one. Demesne? No problem. But to deckle? Prelapsarian? Thank God for the Oxford English Dictionary! I respect a man who can teach me two obscure words in the first six pages without slowing down the prose. And he doesn’t let up for the next 284.

You won’t find much on London’s underworld, however. Its wartime shelters, abandoned Tube stations, and vanished rivers are covered in Smith’s earlier book Underground London. If it’s anywhere near as good as Underground England, I’m buying it. Smith offers us a true glory hole (in the mining sense of the word). A brave traveler could make a whole under-the-road trip out of the contents of this book.