Take a stroll around the West End to find some delightful alleyways straight out of Dickens.
There's something quintessentially London about a crooked dark alleyway. They're tightly bound up with the fog-drenched mythologies of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes. In truth, London has nowhere near as many alleys as it once did, and nor are they all concentrated into one small area like you'd find in, say, York.
That said, if you're prepared to go on a bit of an adventure, you can find some truly alluring passageways if you know where to look, and many are steeped in history.
This short tour focuses on the West End around St Martin's Lane, Covent Garden and Strand.
In this google map, alleyways are shown in blue and suggested connecting routes are in mauve.
A note on safety: The idea of walking down a dark alley isn't everyone's idea of fun, and some will have quite legitimate safety concerns. The alleys in this walk all connect up with busy, bustling streets, so you're unlikely to feel isolated unless you take the tour late at night. Consider inviting a friend along if it helps.
Begin at Embankment station. Take the southern exit onto Embankment and climb the stairs up to the Golden Jubilee Bridge.
Charing Cross raised walkway
Our first alleyway is one of London's most unusual in that it's not at ground level. Follow the trail north towards Charing Cross station. You'll pass first through a characterful brick tunnel from Victorian times (note the wazzbaffles), before emerging onto a highwalk above Villiers Street. The raised walkway continues all the way into the station, but we're going to break off early and head down the steps to the road below.
Once down, turn left. Towards the top of Villiers Street, just past Five Guys restaurant, head down York Place.
York Place (Of Alley)
York Place isn't exactly a thing of beauty, and it can be heady with uric aromas on a Sunday morning. But it does have one remarkable feature, and that's its historic name. Recorded on the street signs at either end, we learn that the route was formerly known as "Of Alley". When the area was developed in the late 17th century, its streets were named after landowner George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. So you could have found a George Court, Villiers Street, Duke Street and Buckingham Street... but also Of Alley. It's a great pity that the name is no longer used, but it is at least remembered on the street signs.
Head north onto Strand, cross the road, then turn right. Look for the hanging sign of Nell Gwynne, which heralds the entrance to...
Bull Inn Court
Three long alleyways climb the steep slopes to the north of Strand to reach Maiden Lane. For the sake of brevity, we're ignoring the first (Exchange Court), which debouches beside the mighty Porterhouse pub. Bull Inn Court also comes with a pub, named after the actress Nell Gwynne. London has quite a few of these off-street pubs — think Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street, the Red Lion in St James's, Ye Olde Mitre near Holborn, and the various drinking dens in the alleys off Cornhill. They're always charming, and the Grade-II-listed Nell is no exception.
Further up the alley, look out for the curious installation of cogs on the eastern wall. It recalls a small power station — one of London's earliest — that once stood on Bull Inn Court.
The alley emerges onto Maiden Lane. Turn right and, a few paces on, head back down the hill to Strand via Lumley Court.
A near-twin for Bull Inn Court, Lumley Court is properly ancient, going back to at least Elizabethan times. Ian Visits describes it as "frankly, rather unappealing", but I find myself partially charmed. It is, at its base, the narrowest of the three Strand alleys, which always adds a certain allure. The steps near the top are another pleasing feature. Otherwise, though, it is a little uneventful.
Carry on east along Strand, then go once more uphill along Southampton Street. Once you reach Covent Garden plaza, head over to St Paul's Church. Entrances to the churchyard can be found to both its left and right. I'd suggest using the left one.
St Paul's Covent Garden churchyard
This is not, I'll admit, a typical alleyway — more of a small open space — but it does allow a pedestrian-only route between two streets. The churchyard is stuffed with interest. I'm a big fan of the Poseidon-faced fountain that greets visitors to the south-eastern gate. Or try the north-eastern entrance for a dramatic statue of the Conversion of Paul. Look out too for the giant twopence piece embedded in the floor. And then, throughout the grounds, be sure to read the bench plaques. Many are to famous actors (e.g. John Thaw, Beryl Reid), while others carry unusual messages "Bob Reid... much-loved magician". I never visit Covent Garden without passing through.
Carry on through the churchyard to emerge via a gateway onto Bedford Street. Turn right, and then first left onto New Row, and then left again onto Bedfordbury. Our next alley is immediately on the right.
If you spend time hanging about on TikTok or Instagram, then you've probably seen Goodwin's Court before. It's your stereotypical Dickensian alley; narrow, a little bit crooked and lined with 17th century houses with gorgeous wooden bay windows. This used to be a quiet, obscure cut-through, but I can almost guarantee you'll now find a group of tourists with their smartphones a-whirl. Indeed, notices have gone up to prohibit more than two tour groups at one time (though it's not clear on whose authority this is imposed).
Exit onto St Martin's Lane and turn left. We're ignoring a couple of other alleys for now, in favour of Brydges Place on the left, just beyond the Coliseum.
Welcome to London's narrowest alley... or so countless guidebooks claim. Ian Visits reckons they're wrong and, in fact, Emerald Court near Lamb's Conduit Street is slightly narrower. One day, I'll head into town with my tape measure to see who's right (obviously, it'll be Ian, because he's always right), but a good trivialist always verifies. Either way, Brydges Place is breath-holdingly narrow. You won't get a buggy or wheelchair through its western entrance. Things widen out a little further along. Indeed, the rear entrance to the excellent Harp pub makes use of the space as a tiny beer 'garden'.
Emerge onto Bedfordbury and turn left. Head up until you're almost at Goodwin's Court again, but turn left just before onto Hop Gardens.
What at first appears to be nothing more than a service yard soon turns into a bona fide alleyway. So far as is known, there never was a hop garden round here (although we are in the purlieu of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, whose name recalls that these lands were once semi-rural). Rather, it takes its name from a long-vanished pub called the Flemish Hop Garden. Otherwise, there's nothing much to detain us here. I even forgot to take a photo. Sorry.
Exit onto St Martin's Lane again, and this time simply cross the road and bear right to reach...
The relatively wide Cecil Court feels more like a pedestrianised street than an alley, though it never was open to traffic. This is one of London's great trade streets — a place where similar professions cluster round one location. Here, it's antiquarian book and map specialists, who announce their presence with an aerial steeplechase of hanging signs. As a wall-mounted plaque says, the street was once known as Flicker Alley, thanks to the number of early film companies who set up here. There's also evidence that the young Mozart lived in Cecil Court, very briefly, in 1764. Music, film and literature — is there a more cultured alley in London?
Cecil Court leads through to Charing Cross Road. Head north past Leicester Square tube station until you reach, on the right, Great Newport Street.
And so we finish with London's most famous alley, though one which doesn't really exist. A number of locations lay claim to the famous wizarding shopping centre from the Harry Potter stories. But an alley on Great Newport Street has, I think, the best shout. Look for the gated-off snickelway close to the junction with Charing Cross Road — next to number 12. In the movie version of the Half Blood Prince, we see a group of Death Eaters fly along this narrow passage to reach Diagon Alley, where they wreak havoc. Sadly, we can't follow in their wake. The gate is always firmly locked — unless you happen to know the Alohomora spell.
The tour ends here... but London's alleyways do not. Happy exploring!
All images by Matt Brown