“I Love the Day, I Love the Night” – London’s Liminal Spaces

“But sometimes let me leave the noisie roads,
And silent wander in the close abodes
Where wheels ne’er shake the ground; there pensive stray,
In studious thought, the long uncrouded way.
Here I remark each walker’s diff’rent face,
And in their look their various bus’ness trace” (Gay 2016, 60).

“Where the mob gathers, swiftly shoot along,
Nor idly mingle in the noisy throng.
Lur’d by the silver hilt, amid the swarm,
The subtil artist will thy side disarm” (Gay 2016, 97).

In his satirical poem, Trivia, John Gay speaks of what I here call liminal spaces—places which have no set meaning or purpose, and whose nature can change depending on the time of day. He speaks specifically of these spaces as being safer during the day, and in the night, becoming the den of thieves and prostitutes. Within London a number of these liminal spaces can be found—particularly the alleyways and courts that are nestled between buildings in the old heart of London. In seeking to discover whether or not these liminal places still change according to the time of day, as they seemingly did in the 1700s at the time of Gay’s writing, I decided to explore the alleyways of Bishopsgate, starting at Bank Underground Station. I embarked on two walks, one beginning at 2:30 in the afternoon, and the other one at about 10:30 in the evening. I followed the same route for both walks, and noted whether the character of the alleyways, particularly the level of perceived safety, changed depending on the time of day.

The first walk took place at 2:30, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. I disembarked from my bus near Bank station, and using this place as my starting point, decided to dive into the alleyways and see how far thirty minutes of walking would take me (without getting lost). I began by entering Pope’s Head Alley:

During the day it seemed a well lit and carefully kept place, leading from one main street to the next and populated by the average pedestrian. I came out onto Cornhill, where there was a spectacular building, which I later found to be the Royal Exchange (see also):

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This magnificent building is in fact a place where one can find high end meeting rooms for rent. Already it would seem that this area is not one plagued by a lack of wealth or a great amount of danger. Turning off of Cornhill, I dove into another alleyway:

The sounds of the city were muffled, and I discovered myself in a world unfamiliar. Change Alley was populated with a number of loiterers–people smoking and talking amongst themselves. The population of these was varied as well. I saw one person who had the garments of a homeless character, and another who looked like a well-payed businessman. Some of the smokers paid me unwanted attention, so I moved quickly on. Change Alley turned left, and led into a crossroads:

On one side I found a blue plaque, proclaiming that on that site had once rested the late Kings Arms Tavern, first meeting place of the Marine Society, only 40 years after Trivia was written:

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I continued straight down Change Alley and turned left into Birchin Lane, after which I paused to take photographs before crossing to a tiny passageway named Bengal Court:

At this point I began receiving some strange looks, so I hurried through my photography and stepped into this narrow passage, barely wide enough for my own body. Once it widened, it was by far the most beautiful passage I had yet encountered. Well lit, well kept, and with a distinct lack of modern scenery, it felt as if I had been transported back to some part of Victorian London, which, considering the age of the alleyways I had already traversed, is not surprising:

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It led out into a square, open to the sky, with few people, which was bordered all round by buildings, and had multiple alleyways and streets leading away–one to the right, onto the main road. I turned immediately left into St Michael’s Alley, walking to the Jamaica Winehouse, a place that would have been in existence in Gay’s time. It was seated next to a beautiful churchyard:

I turned right, and then a left, weaving around the churchyard to take another right down a set of stairs into Corbet Court. As I turned off, I paused to listen to the voices of the church choir, drifting through the windows. Further on, Corbet Court was emblazoned with the ominous notification claiming that:

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I ignored it.

Out of Corbet Court I made a left into St. Peter’s Alleyway, and back out onto the main road–Leadenhall Street. I crossed this and went into Sun Court, only to find myself at a dead end:

“But sometimes let me leave the noisie roads,
And silent wander in the close abodes
Where wheels ne’er shake the ground; there pensive stray,
In studious thought, the long uncrouded way” (Gay 2016, 60).

John Gay here portrays the daytime alleyways as places where one can escape from the city, where a person can wander at his/her own pace. In the daytime these places are calm, peaceful, and altogether provide a good escape from the scrutiny of the city. While I did find the alleyways to be quiet and calm, I also encountered an assortment of people, around some of whom I did not feel particularly comfortable. Unfortunately, none of them came across as particularly “pensive”.

The second walk was even more surprising, in regards to John Gay’s take on night time alleyways.

I followed exactly the same path as the last, starting now at 10:30 in the evening. On the street outside Bank Station I observed some of what may be considered suspicious characters, and so quickly entered Pope’s Head alleyway. Once inside, I found myself quite alone, yet still within a well lit and seemingly safe environment.

On the second walk I found that I noticed more small details, like the above horse, or these interesting artifacts and places:

Yet all was still quiet, with few to no people, and it remained this way for more than half of the walk until I came to the Jamaica Wine Bar, where it’s occupants began to notice me snooping around.

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I made my way beyond to Corbet Court (taking note of the trash on the stairs), where a man in official uniform was standing, talking to two women.

I walked on into the open street and ended finally in Sun Court.

It wasn’t until after I had officially finished my walk, and was waiting at the bus station, that I saw any signs of debauchery: two police officers speaking with a man and a couple.

Trivia addresses, quite clearly, the dangers of entering alleyways by night:

“Though you through cleanlier allies wind by day,
To shun the hurries of the publick way,
Yet ne’er to those dark paths by night retire;
Mind only safety, and contemn the mire.
Then no impervious courts thy haste detain,
Nor sneering ale-wives bid thee turn again” (Gay 2016, 104).

John Gay talks constantly about the threats of thieves, disreputable men, and prostitutes in the night time, yet in my night walk I met no one of this description–for that matter, I met almost no one at all. It is a testament to how much the city must have changed since Gay’s time, that I can, as a woman, walk in the streets mostly unmolested in the daytime, let alone at night.

To compare the two, the first walk, surprisingly, felt more unsafe. There were a number of people walking around the alleyways, talking loudly, and casting odd looks at me as I photographed and explored the area. Quite unlike John Gay’s daytime alleyways, the people here seemed more bent on loitering or in getting from one place to the next, rather than becoming lost in thought. In the second walk, there were hardly any people in sight–much less than on the streets. It was very quiet, with no drunks, no one smoking, and only one official standing by a pair of women, for reasons unknown. It was only after I had exited the liminal space, as mentioned above, that I encountered anything that could be considered a sign of trouble. It is to my great surprise to conclude that in my modern walks, I found myself more safe within the alleyways in the evening, while during the daytime I felt less safe inside the liminal spaces. I can only conclude that the safety must be in the lack of people around to harass me at night, and during the day, there is more safety in the crowds outside of the liminal spaces–quite the opposite of what John Gay claimed in Trivia. This stands as a testament to just how changeable liminal spaces are. Their nature is not changed merely by the time of day, but by the era in which they are walked.

 

REFERENCES:

Gay, John. Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London. City of Westminster, London: Penguin Classics, [1716] 2016.

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