People who venture underground are an odd bunch. I well remember the visiting cavers’ drunken antics at The Old Hill Inn near Ingleton, back in the day. I’ve visited a few show-caves and -mines over the years, but it takes a special form of insanity to enjoy crawling through cramped, wet passageways in the pitch dark. As far as I’m concerned, it’s bad enough going down our cellar for some firewood.
Reading Underland, Robert Macfarlane’s book celebrating subterranean adventurers, brought back two suppressed claustrophobic memories. The first was of the time in Shetland in 1985, when I foolishly decided to crawl through a low, narrow passageway between the twin walls of a prehistoric circular stone tower, known as a broch. I became trapped for a couple of minutes, and had visions of rescuers having to dismantle a protected ancient monument to retrieve a stout archaeology student who really should have known better. The second was of the time I was given a tour of a nuclear-powered submarine berthed at the Liverpool docks. I was shown the small cabin in which, in the event of an emergency, the entire crew was supposed to gather and await rescue through a single escape hatch. It felt pretty cramped with just a handful of us in there. The idea of cramming in the entire ship’s complement seemed preposterous in the extreme. I got the distinct impression the officer showing us around thought so too.
As you might have gathered, my general plan is to remain safely above ground until I no longer have any say in the matter. Which made my enjoyment of Macfarlane’s book such a surprise. I very much admired his previous books, but, due to the subterranean subject-matter, was concerned I might not get much out of this one. My reservations turned out to be groundless.
This is a thoroughly entertaining book. Not least because it isn’t all about squeezing into ridiculously cramped spaces. Macfarlane’s concept of what comprises ‘underland’ is admirably wide. My escapades in the Shetland broch and nuclear-powered submarine might well have counted. In this book he explores all manner of underland, from Greenland glacier-caves to prehistoric burial chambers, from underground rivers to the Paris catacombs, from Norwegian cave-art to subterranean nuclear waste facilities, from tree roots to the search for ‘dark matter’ in a mine beneath the North Sea. It’s all delightfully entertaining and, of course, beautifully written.