The Invisible Underworld of London

Artist Stephen Walter maps the city below the surface.

Stephen Walter

The underworld of London carries many secrets. At least, it used to.

Artist Stephen Walter has found and documented the city's underground complexion in a hand-drawn map of subterranean London. Part of a new exhibition running at the London Transport Museum, Walter's map reveals the buried history of the city, and also the underground infrastructure that keeps it running. From the underground transportation network to homicides to World War II underground shelters, the map bring the under-recognized and maybe even forgotten parts of the city to the surface.

Walter explains how he uncovered the secrets of the underground, and why it's important to think about what's below the surface.

How do you find all this underground information?

I read most things – books, internet. Some maps were online, others at the archives of Transport for London, and Thames Water. A few expeditions.

What sort of expeditions?

I went down into the underground. I wouldn’t want to mention which station it was, because I wasn't supposed to be down there. I went down to the entrance of the Brunel tunnel, which is the first subterranean train tunnel in the world under a river. And I went into Abbey Mills, what they call the cathedral of sewage in East London, and saw their pumping rooms.

Why do you think London's subterranean history and present are important?

The space under our feet reveals the history of the world and us as a species. Its can be read like a layer-cake book. It holds secrets and offers a huge amount of untapped space.

How do you think this map of London affects people living in the city today?

I hope it would make them think about what is beneath them, how the infrastructure came to be there and who is running the show.

You've done a lot of other work on maps and London. Why is it such an interesting place to map and draw?

It is one of the major cities of this world and the place of my birth and one that I know a lot about. Like any city, starting from the very first burial grounds - It is a mausoleum and a living palimpsest of all of our desires and aspirations. Of course, the entropy of our systems and aspirations live tooth and jowl alongside the monuments of our success. This only makes it more fascinating.

Is a hand-drawn map a better map?

Yes, it is a living thing.

How do you think your work addresses the question about what a map should do?

I'm not really bothered about what a map should do. It is a record of what I find interesting and have chosen to edit. A map can do anything you want. I suppose the modern established view is now changing away from the authority of the knowledge of institutions and more towards individuals and small groups. So in this sense, maps can democratize knowledge further.

Do you have any other map drawings in the works, or any you've been itching to do?

I'm doing a map of utopia at the moment that's a map basically 500 years on from when Thomas More came up with utopia as a concept for his book. It's much more like a novel really – a piece of fiction led by the descriptions in the original 1531 book. It’s a halfway house between a real place and an imagined place, because the infrastructure and the things that are in utopia are found in other real places.

Images courtesy Stephen Walter

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.