The Lost World Of The Alleys
You only walk in the alleys if you have a strong stomach and stout shoes, if you are willing to ignore the stink and the sinister puddles for the sake of striking out alone from the throng of humanity coursing along Bishopsgate.
This whole place was once characterised by the warren of alleys and yards which laced the streets. And, when the fancy takes me to enter those that remain, it is in thrall to the delusion that maybe I can find a way back through the labyrinth to old Spitalfields. There is part of my mind that wonders if I will ever find my way out again and another part of me that yearns for this outcome, longing to find an alley that is a portal to a parallel world.
Of the alleys that tempt the innocent pedestrian emerging from Liverpool St Station, only Catherine Wheel Alley actually leads anywhere, delivering you by means of a dog-leg to Middlesex St. Stepping beneath the arched entrance and passing under the low ceiling above, you emerge behind the buildings which line the street to discover yourself at the bottom of a well where sunlight descends, bouncing off the ceramic bricks lining the walls. You walk dead straight in the blind faith that a route lies ahead and enter a tiny yard, where you may surprise a guilty smoker enjoying an illicit cigarette.
“Can I get through?” asked a lone woman I encountered, approaching from the opposite direction with a disarming lack of wariness. I stood against the wall in the yard here to consider the confluence of buildings that intersect in elaborate ways overhead and, to my surprise, a door opened in the wall behind me and an Eastern European woman asked me to step aside as she hauled out two sack of rubbish before disappearing again. From this yard, a narrow street leads uneventfully to Middlesex St – the drama of the alley diminished once the destination is apparent.
Perhaps most people avoid these empty alleys for fear of what they might discover? Individuals engaged in lewd activity, or relieving bodily functions, or injecting pharmaceuticals, or threatening violence, or robbery, or worse? Yet every corner of every alley has a film camera gazing down, removing the possibility of any truly clandestine activity.
The lack of space in these passages demands that people acknowledge each other and the code of mutual disregard which prevails in the street cannot hold. This is the true magnetism of alleys, as escape routes from the hegemony of the crowd. The spatial disorientation, leaving street sounds behind you, as you enter an ambiguous architectural maze is a welcome respite. You can turn in the alley and look back to the people on the pavement, and you discover you have become invisible – they no longer see you.
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