"if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey its innumerable little lanes and courts" - Dr Samuel Johnson
This oft-quoted piece of sagacity from the good doctor is as true today as it was back in the 18th century. London is criss-crossed with secret alleyways and little-known shortcuts. Some are a useful means for avoiding tourist crowds, many have colourful histories; some lead nowhere at all, and quite a few are home to a special pub. You cannot claim to have a sound and ready knowledge of London until you have squeezed through Brydges Place, held your nose along Bull Inn Court, or pondered the name of Hanging Sword Alley.
Time Travel Explorer allows you to seek out these spaces from the comfort of your sofa. Starting in the modern map view, you can zoom in on one of the many passages north of Fleet Street, for example, and compare its layout through time by switching between maps. The first thing you'll note is the marked diminution in number. Back in Johnson's time, many streets could boast an alley or court every few houses. When the City still housed small independent manufacturing trades each business needed access routes from the main street, stabling for horses and provision for waste storage and collection. Comparing with the 1862 view, we find that Peterboro Court is no more, Falcon Court has been blocked off, and Robin Hood Court has, like its namesake, become a myth.
Area north of Fleet Street, 1862, 2010, 1746. Use TTX London to see in more detail.
Many other passages remain in this unusually well endowed part of town. Gough Square, sometime home to Johnson himself, is all present and correct as far back as 1746. Wine Office Court, scene of the incomparably atmospheric Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, has also stayed put. Crane Court, Re
d Lion Court and Hind Court are also undisturbed by the centuries.
Modern developments may appear to sweep away all before them, but farsighted planning laws have preserved many of the characterful snickleways beloved of Johnson. Exploring them on foot is one of my favourite weekend pastimes. Failing that, you can learn a lot about these hidden byways with a quick finger tour in Time Travel Explorer.