London Clay by Tom Chivers

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for London Clay by Tom Chivers and published by Doubleday .


About the Book

Part personal memoir, part lyrical meditation, London Clay takes us deep in to the nooks and crannies of a forgotten city: a hidden landscape long buried underneath the sprawling metropolis. Armed with just his tattered Streetfinder map, author Tom Chivers follows concealed pathways and explores lost islands, to uncover the geological mysteries that burst up through the pavement and bubble to the surface of our streets.

From Roman ruins to a submerged playhouse, abandoned Tube stations to ancient riverbeds, marshes and woodlands, this network of journeys combines to produce a compelling interrogation of London’s past. London Clay examines landscape and our connection to place, and celebrates urban edgelands: in-between spaces where the natural world and the city mingle, and where ghosts of the deep past can be felt as a buzzing in the skull. It is also a personal account of growing up in London, and of overcoming loss through the layered stories of the capital.

Written in rich and vivid prose, London Clay will inspire readers to think about what lies beneath their feet, and by doing so reveal new ways of looking at the city.


About the Author

TOM CHIVERS is a poet and publisher. He is the author of two pamphlets and two full collections of poetry to date, and is director of the independent press Penned in the Margins. In 2008 he was the Bishopsgate Institute’s first writer in residence, and has appeared widely at events and made a number of contributions to radio, including presenting a 30 minute documentary for Radio 4. He has collaborated with the climate arts organisation Cape Farewell and conducts immersive walking tours of London. Chivers is currently an Associate Artist of the National Centre for Writing.


My Review

London has a long history, for the past 2000 thousand years, it has grown to the financial and cultural global city of today whilst surviving several invasions, one major fire, a plague or two. Bronze Age bridges have been found but the people that made it their own were the Romans. They settled there and made their city at the point where it was possible to cross. The river meant they could control the local area and still have access to the resources and might of their empire.

But Chivers wants to start with the real history of the place, seeking the deep history of the landscapes of the lost rivers and secret woodlands. Like with all good adventures it begins with a map, a streetfinder that is being changed with felt tip pens and highlighters. Trafalgar  Square turns orange to show the underlying silt and clay, the banks of the Thames are shade yellow to represent the alluvium deposited by the river. Under all of these layers is the clay that has played a big part in the creation of the city as some of the people who have inhabited it. As the maps are coloured in, features that have long been hidden show their ghostly presence once again.

A map is only so useful though. What he needs to do it to start to see if that underlying geology is still visible in the modern concrete jungle. He knows exactly where to start too, Aldgate. It was here that he noticed a trench that was around 15 feet deep and was slowly accumulating junk. He could see the brick lining but also visible was the silt that built London. But it is a reminder that London is a city that is constantly changing, buildings that are not that old are ripped out to make space for the newest glass edifices. His next journey takes him to Dulwich in search of the rivers that once flowed across the city and now only flow through culverts before he traces the Walbrook on the modern streets.

It is clay. Of course it is. London Clay. I cannot help myself. I stretch my hand towards the bank and dig my thumb in. it comes out thick and yellow. The dark, sandy yellow of London stock brick. Clay.

Westminster is now the centre of our government and establishment, but it used to be a river delta in its past. He heads down into a sewer to see the River Fleet and has to shower a long time after that experience. If you know where and how to look there are still echoes of the roads that the Romans first used, Watling Street, Stane Street as well as hints of more recent London, as he searches for the lost island of Bermondsey and sees if the Olympic Park has eradicated the ancient causeway that crossed the marshes.

I thought this was a fantastic book. For me, Chivers has got the mix of history, geology and personal memoir spot on. I particularly liked the way that he sees the way that even the modern cityscape reflects the underlying geology, the subtle rises in the modern tarmac reveal the paths of ancient causeways and the traces of the rivers long since buried under the streets. He has a way of bringing to the surface, moments of London’s ancient history in a way that is utterly compelling. He draws deeply from his life as a Londoner and his knack of seeing the tiniest detail in the cityscape he walks is transferred onto the page as he uses his skill as a poet in the wonderful prose. If you want a very different book on London that explores how we have transformed the city as much as it has shaped our nation.


Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour:


Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours and Doubleday for the copy of the book to read.

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  1. annecater

    Thanks for the blog tour support x

    • Paul

      You are very welcome, Anne

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds wonderful! 😀

    • Paul

      It was excellent

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