What? With the notable exception of snack machines, change is inevitable. And so, as one year transmorphogrophosises into the next, we paid a visit to Change Alley in the very heart of the Square Mile. It’s a curious cat’s cradle of byways with five (count ‘em) debouchments onto the surrounding streets. The pentet of paths come together in a subdued nexus, kept in permanent shadow beneath canyon-like office buildings of glazed-white brick. Change Alley is a contraction of Exchange Alley, relating, of course, to the Royal Exchange on the opposite side of Cornhill. These passages have a long history, but have changed shape and direction in the centuries since Roque’s map of 1746 (see gallery image).
At the heart of Change Alley is a crossroads. On one wall, a blue plaque records the erstwhile presence of the King’s Arms Tavern, where the (still afloat) Marine Society was founded in 1756. Turnabout to the south and you’ll spot a more unorthodox plaque in the shape of a grasshopper. London aficionados will recognise the leitmotif of merchant Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange and Gresham College. The emblem can also be seen hanging above Lombard Street, and on the Royal Exchange weather vane. Here, it is used to mark the site of Garraways Coffee House. This famed hostelry-cum-auction house was founded in 1669 and became the first shop in England to serve or sell tea. Another famous coffee house, Jonathan’s, was also located in Change Alley until its (second) destruction by fire in 1778. Jonathan’s was one of the pre-eminent places to trade in stocks and shares in the early 18th Century, before formalisation into the Stock Exchange. A third corner of the crossroads bears the crest of the Scottish Widows Life Assurance Society.
Why Use? As well as a handy shortcut between Lombard Street and Cornhill, Change Alley is one of those serene parts of the City where ancient and modern fuse. It may no longer smell of coffee, but nor does it smell of piss; a rare and welcome omission for the experienced alley trekker.