London Clay is an impressionistic survey of London and its history, filtered through the prism of the underlying geological strata. It is at once personal and overarching, meandering from pre-Roman to Victorian, south London to north, via what Chivers (a poet by trade) calls ‘eight documentary essays’.
Each essay tackles a locality, often focusing on the course of a ‘forgotten’ river and its attendant mixture of alluvium, gravel, and clay. For instance, Chapter 3 traces the environs of the Walbrook: from an artificial mound in Shoreditch (created from rubble during the building of the Boundary Estate at the beginning of the 20th century), past a Roman cemetery at Finsbury Circus (excavated between 1987 and 2007), ending up in the Temple of Mithras at the heart of the City of London, on the eponymous Walbrook road.
The book offers a mixture of personal memories from the author linked to the landscape, vivid descriptions of its current state, and imagined links to hidden underground histories. As a non-specialist work touching on archaeological issues, it is highly recommended.
Review by Robin Hughes.
London Clay: journeys in the deep city, Tom Chivers, Doubleday, £20, ISBN 978-0857526922.