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Alan Gilbey of East End Backpassages chooses his five secret London spots

Posted at 6:00 pm, December 14, 2012 in Secret London
Alan Gilbey - East End Backpassages Walks

Ordinarily, if a chap in a suit invites you to the east end to explore some backpassages, we’d advise you to decline, and promptly leave his vicinity. But Alan Gilbey isn’t up to no good. He knows the ins and outs of all the east end’s nooks and crannies, even the dingy, dirty, unnamed ones. We’re making this sound like you should avoid him too, but don’t; he’s got a whole load of history to share. Here are his five secret London spots. Ashleigh Arnott

Catherine Wheel Alley, EC2, off Bishopsgate
‘This backpassage is associated with a dick, Dick Turpin, a highwayman so notorious he seems to be connected with almost any London pub needing a bit more trade, including the Catherine Wheel, which used to be down here. It’s hard to imagine how they fit it in though. There isn’t room to swing a horse. This is one of the narrowest alleyways in London and loooooong, which is its charm. It’s not pretty or evocative, but  it is endearingly twisty so that arriving at the other end always comes as a surprise. You’re by Liverpool Street. You’re in transit. Now you’re in Petticoat Lane via a crack in the city.’

Artillery Passage, London

Artillery Passage, E1
‘My prettiest backpassage is also the most evocative of past times if you can de-gentrify it. Why not have a go? Delete the wine bars and the sushi shops and paste a big block of poverty and neglect in their place, then use your cloning tool to construct a whole district of places like Artillery Passage. You’ll now have just the hintiest hint of just how grim it was around here at the height of the British Empire, the largest and richest the world had ever seen.  Just a few hundred yards from its financial centre people struggled to survive in mazes of alleys like this. Living several families to a single room, eeking out a meagre existence making matches, clothes pegs or cheap shoes, these were dead-end places in every sense. It’s quite nice now, though.’

The Steps With No Name

The Steps With No Name, E2, half way up the south side of Cheshire Street
‘Past the shops selling ‘pre-loved’ clothing and the first store to stock Doctor Martens in the UK, a short stump of alley leads to the place where The Steps With No Name clamber over the railway lines into Liverpool Street. It’s grim up there and even grimmer on the other side, where the shadows of old arches hide all manner of sex and drugs and rock and roll bands posing for photographs. The Clash once glared at a camera there, as did The Libertines, and many other groups trying to look ‘street’. If you make it safely to the other side you’ll find a sweet urban farm which holds an annual Oxford and Cambridge Goat Race.’

Angel Alley, London

Angel Alley, E1, off Aldgate High Street
‘Nothing stands still in London (unless you’re in Madam Tussauds) and in Aldgate the City of London is gradually inching forward, office blocking the place as it goes. Artiness is on the rise too, as the expanded Whitechapel Art Gallery inspires a spate of new coffee shops with bare brick walls and old school chairs. But one sharp turn off the main road and you will find yourself at the front door of a much more dissident lifestyle. Slip down the subversive sliver of side street beside the KFC, passing portraits of dissidents as you go, and you’ll discover Freedom Press, an anarchist bookshop and printers that has been publishing papers and pamphlets since 1886.’

Watney Market, London

Watney Market, Commercial Road, E1
‘So short it barely passes as a back passage, this runs from Commercial Road, behind an air vent for the tube, to Watney Market. You can kick a few discarded chicken and chips boxes out of your way and be through it in seconds, but if you don’t look down you’ll miss something important – London’s least impressive Doric column. Too small to be a bollard. Too fluted to be just a block of concrete. This stumpy enigma makes living in London just that little bit more special.’

For more from Alan, visit eastendbackpassages.com

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