York is a very, very old place. The sheer number and variety of different peoples who have inhabited its 105 square miles has lent the city a patchwork of history unlike few other British settlements. Obscure York has taken in just a handful of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the place we call home, covering the length and breadth of the city. Should you desire, you could visit all of the oddities on foot; but you would, of course, need an excellent route. So, you’re going to need some short cuts.
A snickelway, or ginnel, is, according to Mark W. Jones in his 1983 book, “a narrow place to walk along, leading from somewhere to somewhere else, usually in a town or a city, especially in the city of York.” Snickelways link many parts of York to each other, and the portmanteau of ‘snicket’, ‘ginnel’ and ‘alleyway’, (coined by Jones), refers to those dark passageways you will no doubt have come across on your travels.
These passageways have a habit of connecting two parts of the city seemingly completely separate. Without a snickelway, for instance, one would have to trek around multiple streets, navigating tourists and unrequired commerce. Instead, a convenient alley appears exactly where you need it and presto!, there is a path to where you need to be. It’s basically like that secret passage from the kitchen to the conservatory in Cluedo on a massive scale. Oh, and they have great names, too; mysterious, otherworldly names. Names like Mad Alice Lane, and Pope’s Head Alley, and Hornpot Lane Nether.
The transitory nature of snickelways is their biggest draw. Disappearing in one place and appearing in another has long been on the wish list of most humans, and it is these sneaky ginnels that, just for a few fleeting minutes, offers us that liminal luxury.
Each of the snickelways comes with its own story. For instance, Finkle Street, leading from St.Sampson’s Square to Swinegate, comes from the Germanic for Crooked Street, ‘Winkel’. It was also once known as Mucky Pig Lane for its connection to the pig market. However, the etymology of that particular name can also be linked to ‘Mucky Peg’, a particularly unsavoury prostitute who frequented the area.
An ill-fated campaign to map the snickelways for historic posterity was met with almost unanimous derision back in 2010. Due to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, historic rights of way created before 1949 have to be recorded before 2026, to avoid them falling from public knowledge. Legally, the council are required to provide an official snickelway map, but Mark W. Jones’ book, A Walk Around the Snickelways of York, provides an excellent, (although not definitive), account of the unusual pathways that make up the city.
Hunting, encountering and walking the snickelways of York is an excellent way to spend a sunny afternoon in the city. As well as providing you with an alternative, quicker and more interesting route, the snickelways carry with them an element of history rarely advertised. It would not be hard to produce a month of Obscure York based on snickelways alone. Tracing the life of York, from the Roman invasion through to the present day, it is the secret part, the ‘other’, the unknown, that drives the heart of our city. Guide books may extol the virtues of ghosts and high tea, and there is much to be found when in search of them. However, if you are keen to dig a little deeper, to uncover some mysteries, York will welcome you with open arms.