A city built over centuries, restrained within defensive walls, York's streets are crushed together in all sorts of messy ways. It's very easy for a visitor here to lose their bearings, the only hope of geographical reference being the occasional peek of the towering Minster between buildings. Hundreds of years of redevelopment and conservation have jumbled up the puzzle of architectural styles and urban ideologies. Sandwiched between the wonky buildings on these wonky streets, there are crevices and creases in the city.
These are more than just alleyways. These are snickelways. Or some call them snickets. Or maybe ginnels. Hairlines on the map. Whatever they are, they're essential to the fabric of York, for tourists and residents alike.
For tourists – the adventurous, let's-just-bloody-well-get-lost-and-see-what-happens-kind – these anonymous portals between shops throw up unexpected courtyards and connections and colourful stories. Who was the Mad Alice of Mad Alice Lane? What exactly is a Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate? With these and other historical (and often sanitised) names around the city – Brownie Dyke, Bitchdaughter Tower, Gropecunt Lane – York betrays a rather colourful, family-unfriendly history.
For residents – they are wormholes, safe and swift passages through chaos. Blinkered to the historical theme park that York becomes when the coaches unload in the morning, sometimes you just need to get through town and get on with your life. And that's when the snickelways really deliver. Between them and the handful of shops with multiple entrances (BHS, Laura Ashley, Browns), it's possible to get from one side of York to the other without having to deal with a single horde of pac-a-mac pensioners. At Christmas – oh the chaos that is York at Christmas – knowledge of this network of architectural fissures means the difference between a regular supply of Betty's mince pies and misery.
They aren't pretty, they're filled with bins and pigeon crap and pools of last night's piss (a drunk in York always knows where the nearest snickelway is), but they're our gaps and they're just perfect.
Originally written as a guest post for Herb Lester Associates.