The 10 Best Historic London Alleys
London isn’t short on history-packed passageways. In a city which is partly built on a Medieval street plan, here are the best historic London alleys that I’ve had the pleasure to wander down.
In almost all my London walking tours I try to feature an atmospheric and historic little alleys, so if you fancy exploring these for yourself, come and join me on a fun, history-packed weekend walk!
1. Artillery Passage, Spitalfields
Prior to the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII in the 16th century, Spitalfields was owned by the Priory of St Mary Spital. Once the church land was seized it became a storage area for artillery, canon and archery grounds – hence the name.
However, in 1682 the land was leased for development which is when the houses and shops start to appear. The black arrow in the faded black and white sign is the symbol of the Board of Ordinances, the government department responsible and is a reminder that they were the freeholders until it fell into private hands in the 18th century.
2. Goodwin’s Court, Covent Garden
A favourite on Harry Potter walking tours, I’ve lost count of the number of groups I’ve seen here saying it’s the inspiration for Diagon Alley (or Knockturn Alley – there never seems to be a consensus!)
Like Artillery Passage above, this was once on church land, in the Parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields, but was given to the 1st Earl of Bedford in 1552. The Bedford Estate still own large parts of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury.
Goodwin’s Court (originally Fisher’s Alley) was laid out in 1690 and the right hand side building dates from then, albeit with the later additions of 18th century shop fronts.
3. Pickering Place, St James’s
Just to the left of Berry Bro’s and Rudd – where there’s been a shop since the 1690s! – You can find this historic alley leading to London’s smallest public square.
It’s named after William Pickering, the son-in-law of then owner of Berry Bro’s, back when it was Widow Bourne’s Coffeeshop. Pickering was responsible for laying out the new alley and square in the 18th century.
Throughout its long history it’s been the supposed site of duels, residence of Lord Palmerston (twice Prime Minster in the 19th century) but most bizarrely was the site of the Texan embassy. Read more about the American connection here.
4. Emerald Court, Bloomsbury
If you’re searching for London’s narrowest alley, you might read online that it’s Brydges Place, just off St Martin’s Lane.
However, I’m here to burst your bubble. The actual narrowest alley can be found in Bloomsbury and I was first shown this wonderfully tiny spot on a walk with Peter Berthoud.
I’d also like to give a grateful shot out to the ever diligent Ian, who actually measured the width. So Emerald Court holds the title for now…
If you’re curious – and I know you are! – at their respective narrowest points, Emerald is 26 inches compared to Brydges Place’s *whopping* 33 inches. Explore more quirky gems on my Bloomsbury walk.
5. Magpie Alley, City of London
There are so many brilliant historic alleys to be explored off Fleet Street, the most popular probably being Wine Office Court, home to the Cheshire Cheese pub.
However, one that far less people are familiar – and one we visit on my Fleet Street Secrets walk – is Magpie Alley, first mentioned in the 17th century.
Although it doesn’t feel a old as some of the other alleys on this list, it has a remarkable collections of printed tiles which celebrate the history of printing on Fleet Street.
Even more remarkable is what’s hiding at the end of the alley. Peer over the railings and beneath the 1980s office building is the 14th century remains of Whitefriars Monastery!
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6. Ely Court, Holborn
The name Ely is a reference to the Bishop of Ely, a major landowner in the area in the 16th century. The historic alley runs pretty much along the line of the Bishop’s cloister, which stood alongside St Etheldra’s Chapel, which can still be visited today, however it first appears on maps in the late 18th century.
The pub you see in the picture below was originally built in 1546 for his staff although the actual building itself is far more recent.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s not well worth visiting, it even features in this post I wrote about the strangest historic things you can find in London pubs!
7. Bengal Court, City of London
If you wanted to go to one spot to get your fill of historic London alleys, the City of London is the place for that. Between Lombard Street and Cornhill in particular there’s a maze of tiny passageways that each have a fascinating piece of history to tell.
One of my personal favourites – and probably the narrowest alley in the City – in Bengal Court. It’s probably named after the 19th century Bengal Arms Tavern but appears on earlier maps as White Lyon Alley or simply anonymous.
Given its historic location in the thick of coffeehouses, chop houses, merchant warehouses and shops the alley seems eerily quiet now and is one of the most atmospheric stops on my City walking tour. But is it narrower than Emerald Court?! Next time I’m there, I’ll have to bring my measuring tape!
8. Wapping Old Stairs, Wapping
Running alongside the Town of Ramsgate Pub, if you keep going along this alley you’ll shortly find yourself with wet feet.
This is a reminder of the hundreds of historic alleys that lead directly to the Thames in London’s docklands. In terms of just how old the street is, it’s probably 16th century, given the earliest pub on the site dates from the 1530s.
When walking along the path, fingers brushing against the bricks, it doesn’t take much effort to be transported back through the centuries. A time when pirates and thieves were brought along these alleys to the Thames foreshore, hanged at execution dock and left as a gruesome spectacle until the tide washed over them three times.
9. Canon Alley, City of London
A newer alley on the list offers one of the most spectacular views of St Paul’s Cathedral.
This area was decimated in the Blitz but the incorporation of narrow passageways into new developments mean you don’t lose these epic glimpses which remind you of the ancient City plan. Canon Alley merges into Queen’s Head Passage, first mentioned in 1799 and probably named after a pub.
10. Angel Place, Borough
Our final historic London alley is another slightly eerie one and can be found off Borough High Street.
Walk along Angel Place and you’re walking beside the former prison walls of the Marshalsea, a notorious prison where Charles Dickens father was held for debt in 1824.
The Grade II listed wall marks the Southern Boundary of the Marshalsea and there’s a pretty garden on the other side that’s worth visiting too. You can read more about its history here.
Got any more cracking historic London alleys to recommend? Let me know in the comments!
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