Lurking in the alleys of York

In York the are lots of tiny alleys which add to the city’s charm. These cut-throughs are tucked away off main streets and have come to be called “snickelways.”

Low Petergate, York

Ginnels and snickets

The term “snickelway” was coined by Mark W Jones, author of “A Walk Around the Snickelways of York” published in 1983. In Yorkshire, a common name for an alley is “snicket” or “ginnel”, both terms not used in the south or Midlands. It seems Mr. Jones combined the two words to come up with “snickelway.” In this article, I take a look at some of my favourite ginnels, snickets, alleys or snickelways in York.

Mad Alice Lane

Mad Alice Lane

Lund’s Court off High Petergate, used to be called Mad Alice Lane and is often haunted by ghostwalkers leading tours! The “Mad Alice” mentioned, is thought to be a 19th century woman who was hanged for murdering her husband and whose spirit is said to haunt this alley. Storytellers have retold and embellished the tale since there aren’t – or at least there were not – many hard, cold facts to be found about this Alice person, when I was researching my own ghost tours a few years ago.

The use of the word “mad” is a clear depersonalisation of people with mental health issues, especially in bygone eras when a woman labelled “hysterical” could expect to be locked up at best or executed at worst.

Whatever the truth of the name’s origin, it’s bound to raise the question: “Who was Alice?” rather than a reflection on the demonising of women and mental health. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the name should be changed in a knee-jerk, politically correct response. I’m merely pointing out, whoever Alice was, her name has gone down in posterity for the wrong reasons, as a curiosity for tourists and locals alike.

Perhaps, there never was an Alice, but the term is generic, as the use of “Karen” is in current times! “Ooh she’s a bit of a mad Alice you know,” might have dismissed eccentric or presumed irrational behaviour.

Bedern

Bedern

Then there is haunted Bedern, another even more unusual name for a tiny street. The word is Anglo-Saxon dating back to 1270 and it means “house of prayer.” Bedern Hall which has links to York Minster, is to be found beyond this alley. I was once told by a local bar-owner on nearby street Goodramgate, that footsteps of phantom monks had been heard in his winebar. But more well-known is the tale of the children’s ghosts in Bedern. It was said there used to be an orphan’s workhouse situated in this street and the children died at the hands of a cruel and negligent man named Mr Pym.

Now the area is residential and a little-known cut-through (so far as visitors are concerned) from Goodramgate to nearby streets such as Colliergate.

Many streets in York end in “gate” and this is Saxon – “gata” – which means gait/way of walking and therefore another way of saying: a means of travel.

Nether Hornpot Lane

Netherhornpot Lane

Here is my favourite snickelway in terms of unusual names: Nether Hornpot Lane. There is also a Hornpot Lane which leads from High Petergate to the Holy Trinity Church, one of York’s best-kept secret gems. “Nether” means beneath or under, while “hornpot” speaks of a past when Medieval craftsmen made objects from animal horns, the most obvious being drinking vessels, but they also made screens for candles, combs and spoons from such materials as horn, antler and bone.

The word “pot” does not necessarily mean what it does today in Yorkshire, which is cup. It was an old word for pit and so “hornpot” probably means a large ditch where remnants of horn-working was discovered.

Coffee Yard

Coffee Yard sign
Red devil outside Coffee Yard

Finally, Coffee Yard, an alley off popular shopping street Stonegate, leads to Barley Hall, a reconstructed Medieval hall, open as a museum. Before entering this alley, we find a small red devil with organ-stop eyes sits above and to the left, watching.

Coffee Yard is so-called because it refers to the time when coffee-houses were fashionable places frequented by men, to gossip, plot and read newspapers while drinking coffee. This trend grew in the 17th and 18th centuries. Stonegate in those times was full of bookshops and printing places. The red devil was probably added in Victorian times to remind us of the printer’s devil – the name given to a boy apprenticed to help the printers, who in their spare time would be sitting drinking coffee of course.

There are many more alleys to discover in York and this is just a selection but these are the most noticeable ones around the city.

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