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The Lost World Of The Alleys

January 10, 2019
by the gentle author

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.

You may also like to read about

A Walk Through Time in Spitalfields

The Streets of Old London

The Forgotten Corners of Old London

18 Responses leave one →
  1. January 10, 2019

    Great last photo, was the policeman coincidental, it doesn’t look posed.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 10, 2019

    I also can’t resist a courtyard, cut-through or alley either.

  3. david whittaker permalink
    January 10, 2019

    FANTASTIC..THANK YOU.

  4. January 10, 2019

    What an incredible and fantastic maze, I love alleys. I discover a different and much more interesting and humane London through your eyes. Thank you.

  5. Neil permalink
    January 10, 2019

    Any idea where the name Catherine Wheel Alley came from?

  6. Jane permalink
    January 10, 2019

    It’s not totally dissimilar to wandering around Venice away from the main tourist drag. Fewer cameras, but a few locals, who will greet you and offer help if needed. And it was last year when we wandered around without our gps switched on, before dinner. A passeggiata with a difference

  7. Jude permalink
    January 10, 2019

    My ancestors lived in Frying Pan Alley and other sweet sounding Alleys but were clearly anything but sweet. They were unbelievably poor and lived all their lives around Bishopsgate. I guess they would have known Catherine Wheel too..

  8. Libby Hall permalink
    January 10, 2019

    Wonderful photographs! And magical words to conjure with.

    In the 60s and 70s, in my life around Clerkenwell and Spitalfields, there seemed to be more sought out addresses saying ‘alley’ or ‘yard’. Places I would go to find bookbinding materials, or printers, or clock repair supplies…..

    I always, without fail, found those destinations romantically full of Victorian shadows.

  9. January 10, 2019

    “Our” American alleys are quite different, ‘course. I grew up in a little town outside of Pittsburgh that was replete with alleys, and I loved them. Great for exploring! I still recall the alley in our neighborhood, with small ramshackle garages on one side, and the mysterious “woods” on the other side. The alley winding between. One could walk along there and peer into the mostly-open garages and see the most bizarre tangles of junk. Mysterious stuff, tumbling boxes of debris,
    twine-tied books/magazines/newspapers. Old machinery and gizmos awaiting eventual repair? —
    hell no.

    Nothing even remotely as stalwart as your London alleys — But thanks for reminding me. Once an alley-walker, always an alley-walker. Thank you for taking us to such interesting places, GA!

  10. Sally Baldwin permalink
    January 10, 2019

    “Yet every corner of every alley has a film camera gazing down, removing the possibility of any truly clandestine activity.”

    A friend of mine just returned to the US from a couple of weeks in London, visiting her husband’s dying mother. Yesterday, she mentioned to me that there are cameras everywhere — and that startled me, but today I see it pretty much confirmed in your story on alleys.

    What’s with all the cameras? Are they maintained by the people who live or own businesses adjacent to them? Are they linked to more central authority? Are people totally aware of them? How useful are they? How detrimental to everyday life?

    Here in the US I guess we’re used to seeing them in shopping malls and stores, but — out on the everyday streets? No… at least not yet.

    SLB
    Belfast, ME USA

  11. Susan permalink
    January 10, 2019

    Love the photos! So evocative of a hidden world. I don’t recall venturing down alleys so dark and narrow when in London. But I have relished that feeling of getting lost in time in the mawe of courts and closes still found in the city — once when looking for Samuel Jounson’s House and the other time on a quest to see the stained glass window of Dick Whittington and his cat at St Michael’s Paternoster church (think I have that name right), one of Christopher Wren’s that now serves the Seaman’s Mission. Both times I was lost I found something memorable, a sense of the old higgledy piggledy city that existed long ago before straighter, wider streets.

  12. Karen Chapman permalink
    January 10, 2019

    Dear GA,

    May I just say that discovering your blog (after a mini-break to Spitalfields resulting in an obsession with the place and its buildings) is one of my fondest memories from last year.
    I absolutely relish receiving the daily emails and also dipping into one of the many posts at my leisure.

    I have bought the Life & Times Of Mr Pussy for at least three people I know, including myself.

    I look forward to more of the same.

    Anyway, enough simpering.

    Superb stuff!

    Thank you so much GA.

  13. January 10, 2019

    Neil, the Catherine Wheel was a pub, long gone now.
    I always take the alleys if time permits because, well, you never know. And often wonder how they came about – desire paths, old hedge lines, garden demarcations? I hope so.

  14. January 10, 2019

    Like other readers, I love your postings too, even more so since visiting some of the sites you write about. Coming from summer in New Zealand to the English winter needs a bit of adjusting, but it is well worthwhile. But, do you know, it hasn’t rained since I arrived just before Christmas!

  15. Wendy in York permalink
    January 11, 2019

    Here in York we have many little alleys , or snickets as we call them . You can travel around the city avoiding the busy tourist streets if you so choose . There’s even a book available to guide you & give historical info but it’s the locals that use them the most .

  16. Diane Kosandiak permalink
    January 11, 2019

    Me too, I’ve dreamed about walking down alleys that lead to past times.

  17. Vince Price permalink
    January 17, 2019

    In North East England the word Lonnen or Chare is used as a place name for an alley .
    For example Pudding Chare in Newcastle or Butchers Lonnen in Morpeth, Northumberland

  18. Jim M. permalink
    January 23, 2019

    It’s nice to be amongst fellow ally-lovers!

    A couple of my favourites should you find yourself around Covent Garden:

    Brydges Place and Goodwins Court both run between Bishopsbury and St Martins Lane. Bull Inn Court runs from Maiden Lane down to The Strand and is home to the Nell Gwynne pub where my love and I would meet on our breaks from our respective pubs. Still together after nearly 30 years! :)

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