On the 5th July 1763 Dr Johnson, advising his long suffering biographer, Boswell, said 'Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey its innumerable little lanes and courts.' Many years ago I decided to take the good doctor up on his recommendation and became so enthralled in what I saw and read that the inclination to write about them came quite naturally.
I have researched over 400 byways, and on this site I present the result of my rambles. In each entry I have attempted to relay a combination of features. Historical events are, of course, high on the list and where there are tales to tell I have included sufficient detail to more than whet the appetite. Stories of yesteryear will stir the enthusiasm of most people if characterised with the right flavourings and I have highlighted the well known, the not so well known, the forgotten adventures associated with each byway, together with a description of these places in today's world. Many of these tiny thoroughfares have associations with notable or famous people and no matter whether these are of times past or of more recent years, I have made mention as appropriate. Each entry begins with directions, usually from an easily identifiable point; this is followed by details of public transport - i.e., nearest Underground station and bus routes, with the most convenient alighting stops.
various reasons I have confined the area of concentration to Central London, and for ease
I have defined this area as being that covered by EC1, EC2, EC3, EC4, WC1, WC2, W1, SW1,
and SE1 (Southwark only).
A great many of the byways of Central London are richly endowed with characterful events, courts whose very walls are blackened by age, sometimes leaning, sometimes bulging. Alleys, some so narrow as to barely allow the passage of a single body, where the paving slabs are worn hollow by the passage of centuries of tramping feet. By contrast there are the humble back waters which recline in a more sombre past - characterless passages, with no apparent antiquarian values. There are those which over the years have been greatly widened, reshaped, and effectively removed from the categories of 'alley' or 'passage' in all but their surviving name. Others have been overtaken by dereliction, lying in wait of eventual extinction through modern developments.
Some of these unobtrusive byways give up the history of their past very readily whilst others have little to tell, and even after delving into the depths of time reveal only a modicum of general interest. Nevertheless, my aim was to include all byways designated as alley, court, passage, or yard and this I have endeavoured to do, be there pages to divulge or merely a fistful of words. Undoubtedly, there will be omissions, simply arising from my own inability to track them all down. Likewise, there may be some which, due to the constant reshaping of the City and West End, have very recently disappeared through redevelopment projects, although in most cases I have been able to foresee an eventual obliteration and consequently made allowances.
I cannot leave this introduction without giving mention of two establishment licensees who provided me with necessary sustenance during my research:
Don at the Mitre Tavern, Ely Court, EC1 (after many years, Don retired in November 2004)
Gerry O'Brien, the characterful licensee at the Churchill Arms, Kensington Church Street, W8
Site updated 29th August 2004
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by Ivor Hoole.
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