Find the gap: Nottingham’s secret alleyways

For several centuries when Nottingham was expanding as a town it was riddled with narrow alleyways and cut-throughs that in some cases were unplanned gaps between the increasing number of buildings rather than deliberately conceived thoroughfares. The wide roads that make navigation simple (to the point of being boring) for us in the modern era have come about because of the increasing number of cars, buses, lorries and trams, but in bygone days a lane was considered adequate if it could accommodate two pedestrians side by side. Even ‘main roads’ only had to cope with occasional horse and carts. By the 1800s, the town was awash with ‘narrows’ accommodating houses, shops, and pubs for the increasing number of people flocking to the town to work in the booming textiles industry. How buildings situated in such places could be found by newcomers is a mystery to me, but I imagine it involved following rough directions and then chatting to locals nearer the destination.

King Street and Queen Street are very good examples of the change betwixt antiquity and modernity. Nowadays they are wide roads used by buses and delivery trucks (often simultaneously, and with fractious results!) but in days gone by they were the site of a notorious neighbourhood comprised of a number of crowded and labyrinthine alleyways. Prostitution used to be rife in the market square, and doubtless these discreet egresses played host to many a lewd encounter.

There are still a number of alleys and cut-throughs around the city centre which offer a glimpse of these narrows of yesteryear. Greyhound Street used to stretch between Long Row East all the way through to Parliament Street, but at some point was curtailed into the odd shape we see today.

Hurts Yard (connecting Upper Parliament Street with Angel Row) maintains its original route and many of its original buildings. A surprising number of businesses are housed in this thoroughfare.

Norfolk Place is a frequently overlooked alley from Theatre Square to the Market Square. Backlash clothing’s ripped and tattered sign can still be seen on the white building at the northern end of Norfolk Place. Backlash’s old doorway (in the 80s and 90s) used to take customers up to premises above the shop buildings on the east side of Market Street.

Over on the southern side of the Council House and Exchange Buildings you can find a few secret narrows. Peck Lane is a pleasant alternative to Exchange Walk on busy days. I once met a couple walking the opposite way to me, and they’re the only other people I’ve seen here in decades of using the cut-through. In the 13th century, ‘peck’ was used to refer to a portion of oats used to feed horses, which – if appropriate to our thoroughfare – suggests the lane could have existed in some form for eight centuries.

Further east are St Peter’s Chambers and Poultry Arcade. Both provide glimpses of the rear of city buildings that will prove intriguing to any amateur urban explorer or city photographer.

Some narrows get modernised. West End Arcade and the Flying Horse Walk are old, winding narrows converted and updated to more contemporary shopping locations (with varying degrees of success). Other alleys (such as Cannon Court and Cobden Chambers) are cul-de-sacs, and – in terms of the businesses they play host to – suffer somewhat from being hidden away. If an alley is open at both ends, some people will get wise to it as a cut-through and so notice a business situated there. If it’s closed off, the footfall of the thoroughfare will be much lower.

There are multitudes of these places, and I don’t pretend to know them all. I love chancing upon new ones and suddenly catching an unexpected glimpse of some seedy, weathered Nottingham buildings I never knew existed before.

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