Whilst every capital city is awash in the ghosts of its past, London has signs of habitation dating back to the Neolithic period. Over the millennia London has been decimated by civil war, apocalyptic fire and the horrors of the Blitz; the very streets redrawn under our feet as London ceaselessly rebuilt itself. However despite what the towering skyscrapers of the square mile might suggest, the bones of the old city thrust themselves through the steel and glass in innumerable places. Strolling through London is like walking through thousands of years of history, but often that past is un-signposted and occluded by familiarity. Architectural historian and occasional television presenter Dan Cruickshank pulls back the veil of centuries with the pleasingly weighty ‘Cruickshank’s London’.
Over the last decade a notable cottage industry of delving into ‘secret London’ has built up in the literary world. Whether shadowy members’ clubs, underground tunnels and walled gardens, the one factor that ties the areas deemed as ‘secret london’ together is they are, unsurprisingly, extremely difficult to get into. By contrast the 13 suggested walks that make up the spine of Cruickshank’s London only require being ambulatory. Many of them are streets that any Londoner not entirely enslaved by Uber would have walked countless times, but in clear incisive prose Cruickshank explains the fascinating social history that has fallen out of common knowledge. Whilst you might have a perfectly good idea where to walk in Hampstead Heath, odds are most people aren’t so au-fait with the decades of war over its future between common Londoners and the grasping industrialist Maryon Wilson, or how the Heath’s ‘wildness’ is less than a century old. Or how the Royal Exchange used to be the gay red light district, teaming with ‘Swarthy Buggerantoes, Preternatural Fornicators…who would Ogle a Handsome Young Man with as much Lust as a True-bred English Whoremaster would gaze upon a Beautiful Virgin’.
Cruickshank’s main interest as an architectural historian is clear throughout the book and occasionally his relentless explanation of the classical inspirations for many of London’s oldest buildings can cause a layman’s eyes to skip ahead slightly. The book is also over five hundred pages long, meaning that it’s unlikely that you’ll be bringing it with you when undertaking any of the walks suggested. Whilst the walks are also indicated via maps at the beginning of each section, but irritatingly there’s no easy way to follow text-based directions. Beyond this grouse it must be said that the text is generously laid out with dynamically positioned photos, paintings and engravings on nearly every page which help stave off drowning in detail. Whilst it’s not quite to the magisterial level of Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London: A History’ (but not a lot is, it must be said), ‘Cruickshank’s London’ is a fascinating guide through our collective past and the ideal companion for the intellectual rambler.