Skip to content

The Lost World Of The Alleys

May 2, 2024
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

5 Responses leave one →
  1. arabella permalink
    May 2, 2024

    Brilliant – love this piece of writing.

  2. May 2, 2024

    I love the photograph of Catherine Wheel Alley. It could definitely be, as you suggest, a portal to another place.
    Where I live, there is a small, unnamed, alley known locally as Coffin Alley because of its shape. The walls bulge towards the middle and taper towards the end. Walking through it one is very much enclosed.

  3. May 2, 2024

    I’m grateful that you’ll do this kind of exploring for me, G.A.! I suppose if the City puts a sign on it, it must be a right-of-way (although the bobby seems to think something illicit might be occurring there)!

    I love that the old lanterns are still there, and haven’t been replaced by modern high-efficiency long-life security lighting. You could almost believe for a moment that you have stepped into a previous century.

  4. May 2, 2024

    These photos totally capture what is captivating and intriguing about alleys. The tightness of the enclosures……….the secret aspect of the locations………The feeling of having the short cut all to yourself……..the surprisingly random slices of human activity if one looks UP or looks DOWN, etc.
    I grew up in a small town just outside of Pittsburgh, and it was REPLETE with alleys. During childhood, the alleys were our favorite place to stroll, carouse, view interesting bits of junk and cast-asides, or cut through to other locations without seeing seen. One could literally “kick the can”, or turn cartwheels, or walk hand-in-hand with a new boyfriend — in the alleys. Noted regional artist Ron Donoughe has published his new series of paintings, “The Ways of Pittsburgh” which perfectly captures the homey well-loved alleys of this magnificent American city, and the memories flooded back.

  5. May 5, 2024

    I am naturally a bit wary of alleyways but I am a fairly bold explorer so put my fears to one side in pursuit of a glimpse of old London. Yesterday my map app suggested I follow a path to reach my destination. I approached a half closed gate to an industrial estate with caution – this really did not look like a designated pathway. In fact, I had arrived at a very lively Walthamstow market, including two craft breweries, various eateries and an eclectic purveyor of vintage and bespoke home decorations. Sometimes it pays to peep round corners and follow unlikely paths. P.s. I love the last photo: “‘ello ‘ello, what do we ‘ave ‘ere then?!”

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS