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The Lost World Of The Alleys

April 12, 2015
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

21 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    April 12, 2015

    thanks for this. i miss alleys. i used to walk the alleys of the dupont circle neighborhood in d.c. with my dog. she loved them.

  2. Brighty (@404Cameljockey) permalink
    April 12, 2015

    The City planners have done a poor job in protecting these thoroughfares from developers who have just built over them for thirty years or more; as you say, just leaving cul-de-sacs. The City is very changed from the 70s when I started there, but it still has so many traces of its centuries-old heritage. I only truly feel at home when I visit the EC districts where I worked for so many years. For example, I’d love to be invited to dinner at the beautiful Guildhall again, once many years ago was not enough!

    p.s. thanks for the Twitter follow.

  3. Bee [Tingey} permalink
    April 12, 2015

    What an awful indication of today’s behaviour that you had to start this item with a warning. Unbelievable that this is the 21st century, in this country and not some debt ridden, sickness infected third world slum. You read on, and sadly nothing improves, you’re heart sinks, Oh well, my dear old London, the home of my ancestors is lost.

  4. April 12, 2015

    I love the name Catherine Wheel Alley. I wonder if there was a firework factory near by?

  5. Chris F permalink
    April 12, 2015

    I love the last photo of the policeman looking down the alley…. Part of his regular beat and possibly an alley where he knows that other nefarious acts take place? Or were you acting suspiciously?

  6. saveHOVE permalink
    April 12, 2015

    Last photo cracks me up! Kind of reinforces the idea that you cannot be in an alleyway for a good reason!

    In Brighton, we have The Lanes (not to be confused with the narrow streets of shops in the area just below Brighton Station within the former North Laine of old – laine being a measured field area) where no vehicle could get in. The Lanes in Brighton are friendly because the buildings are generally only a few storeys high. Make the height huge and the sense of enclosure grows threatening.

    These days, planning laws concerning overlooking and overshadowing as well as safety issues (“secure by design” principles) mostly prevent creation of new narrow pedestrian passageways, either between commercial buildings like these or between new houses. Early 20th c housing developments and inter-war ones often have windows of one house on the side which have matching windows on the side wall of the adjacent house….such that you can wave to your neighbour through them. I used to marvel at one such when sat by my great aunt’s kitchen window which was perhaps just over a metre from her neighbour’s sitting room side window. “Don’t look!” she would admonish.

    I find myself looking at your alleyway lanes here and wondering what frontages may once have lined them, and of what heights. The property lines were drawn so long ago, creating boundaries people eventually built right up to….

  7. Jill permalink
    April 12, 2015

    Ditto, Chris F. That last photo suggests so many questions. Did the policeman say anything to you?

  8. April 12, 2015

    Victoria. I think it may have more to do with Saint Catherine, who was put to death on a burning, spinning, wheel.

  9. Peter Wilson permalink
    April 12, 2015

    The years tick steadily by…. I have worked in the City 39 years. My second job was in Lloyds Avenue. One lunchtime my boss said “We’ll walk to Bank tube”. And so we did; it was his party piece for new recruits; never along a street (we had to cross several of course) but otherwise entirely through alleyways, and most dramatically, in at one door of Plantation House, right through, and out the other end! No security gates or officials then.

  10. Pauline Taylor permalink
    April 12, 2015

    My father taught me always to explore and never to be afraid so your exploration of these alleys reminds me of that, but I’m not sure that I would be so keen nowadays, which is a sad reflection of the times that we live in. No doubt the policeman in the final photo has had experience of people and activities that most of us manage to avoid in our normal lives, nevertheless there is still that sense of anticipation as to where an alleyway might lead that is hard to shake off. And doors that open onto an alley are fascinating, surely -one can help but wonder what lies behind them, a beautiful courtyard, a den of vice, it could be anything, although, in your case it seems just to have been sacks of rubbish, ah well, we can still dream!!


  11. April 12, 2015

    Lovely essay and wonderful photographs. Thank you.

  12. April 12, 2015

    Oh My! (almost) transported me back to the wynds and alleys of Auld Reekie, my hometown.

  13. Gary Arber permalink
    April 12, 2015

    That policeman was not a happy bunny !. London policemen do not like to be photographed, David Hoffman will tell you how he had his teeth knocked out by a policeman who he was photographing at a recent protest meeting, the police did have to buy him a new set in the end.

  14. Annie S permalink
    April 13, 2015

    These old alleyways are fascinating, I have passed by but didn’t realise you could walk right through.
    There is a Police Station nearby which possibly accounts for the presence of the police officer.

  15. April 19, 2015

    Great photos and text.
    “Perhaps most people avoid these empty alleys for fear of what they might discover?”
    Most people probably avoid them because they have a greatly exaggerated fear of the dangers. Read Mayhew or any history of London and it is obvious that the city used to be far more lawless and dangerous than it is today.

  16. Barbara permalink
    January 3, 2017

    Just yesterday we saw the guilty smoker, the rubbish bins, the mysterious puddles, and all. The alleys were a nice antidote to go-go London. Thanks for the article!

  17. Jennifer permalink
    December 30, 2018

    Google maps took me down Catherine Wheel Alley today.

    The first section was compact but clean leading us to a sharp blind right turn and, frankly the eye of hell! We immediately startled a flock of 20 or so pigeons that were feasting on a bin bag… or a corpse! Only one failed to fly away instead choosing to stare at us, his beady black eye reflecting the quiet dark despair of a life played out in Catherine Wheel Alley. A man in squatting in a doorway eyed my shoes, we are in steel toe-cap territory and he knows my baby pink loafers are destined to meet a murky end!

    The stench hits… the puddles from the walls meet in the middle of the tiny alley to form a river around which I dance. So many questions go through my mind… Is this where it all ends? Will I ever see daylight again? What is that on my shoe? Who would choose to function by this disgusting Alley?

    The darkness parts as the sun blisters through and burns my eyes…

    *Bing bong* “You have reached your destination” Google tells me triumphantly.

    One question is answered – the restaurant i have selected to eat at lines cesspool Alley. The question of what is on my shoe however will never and moreover should never be answered.

  18. Steve Hanscomb permalink
    January 3, 2019

    Interesting article as ever. There is a bit of information about Catherine Wheel Alley on the web. It’s named after the Catherine Wheel pub that stood there and burned down in 1895. It was not named after the firework we all know, but a hideous form of torture and execution that was given to murderers or robbers. They were truly inventive in years gone by when inflicting pain upon criminals. While it would be wonderful to take a time machine back to old London to see the wonderful streets, buildings and characters, it could be a barbaric place it seems.

  19. December 14, 2021

    Thank you for the lovely photographs and atmosphere. Soaking it up.
    Greetings from Australia. I am descended from two convicts transported to Australia, John Banks from Essex in 1820 and Elizabeth Berry in 1829. Elizabeth was born in Cable Street in 1810 and transported for the theft of a gown, from a pawn shop on Commercial Street, with her cousin (Maria) Tamar Dowdy. Tamar lived in Church Lane, next to St Mary Whitechapel. Her father owned the Weavers Arms in Church Lane in early 1800s – now The Bar Lock, White Church Lane. Elizabeth Berry’s grandmother (my 6th great great gm) Tamar Dowdy (nee Read) died in Catherine Wheel Alley in 1781 of decline and was buried at St Mary Whitechapel. So Catherine Wheel Alley has special significance for me.

  20. Sue McAuley permalink
    April 6, 2022

    Wow Cherril, what an amazing story.

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