A big fan of costume dramas and historical fiction, I’ve learned a few archaic and rather obscure words and expressions over the years. These terms pop up on my social media feeds, too, when I least expect them. Just recently, for instance, as I was pinning to my (shameless plug) Taverns, Tearooms, Inns & Pubs board on Pinterest, I came across the term snickelway for the first time. This tickled me so much that the light bulb switched on for a series of posts about these quaint and amusing words – architectural terms such as crinkle crankle, snug and snickelway among them. Since it’s fresh in my mind, I’ll start with the last one!
What the heck is a snickelway?
This word isn’t old, but it perfectly describes the narrow alleys, shortcuts and footpaths, usually public rights of way, which wend higgledy-piggledy (oh! there’s another one) between, through or behind buildings in certain British cities and towns. Usually medieval in origin, these passageways are too tiny to admit vehicles, can be roofed, and may incorporate stairs if the geography is hilly.
The term was invented by author Mark W. Jones in his 1983 book A Walk Around the Snickelways of York. It combines the words snicket (northern England dialect for a narrow passage), ginnel (a narrow passage between or through buildings) and alleyway. York is chock-a-block full of snickelways, and Jones’ term is specific to the area. His book, by the way, was published in handwritten form with hand-drawn illustrations and became hugely popular. An expanded hardcover version, The Complete Snickelways of York, was issued in 1991.
Snickelways are sometimes built partially or entirely into the structures they connect, as in the entrance to Lady Peckett’s Yard. And since York used to be Jorvik, a Viking centre, many carry the name ‘gate’, from the Norse gata, meaning ‘street’. Some alleys boast pretty amusing names, indeed: Nether Hornpot Lane, Finkle Street (from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘crooked’), Three Cranes Lane, Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate (from a phrase meaning ‘neither one thing nor the other’) and Little Peculiar Lane are just a few.
Equivalents exist in many other places in Great Britain and beyond, and the terms for them differ widely. In Nottingham, Robin Hood may have ambushed the Sheriff via a twichell, whilst Liverpudlians would use a jigger as the quickest route from the butcher’s shop to the ironmonger’s. Other terms include passage, place or court (London), jennel (Manchester), twitten (Brighton), ope (Plymouth), shuts (Shrewsbury), close or wynd (Scotland and Ireland), alley (old American cities such as Boston and New Castle, Delaware), steps (Pittsburgh and San Francisco) and lane(way), alley and service road (Canada). Venice, which is mostly vehicle-free, has a maze of calli (meaning ‘narrow’). The covered passages in Lyon, France are called traboules and were originally used by silk merchants to transport their delicate wares in inclement weather.
Although I missed seeing any snickelways when I was in York years ago (something I will regret forever, now that I know about them), here in Canada, I’ve seen at least one. Chancery Lane in Bracebridge, Ontario is a lovely brick-lined alley that leads to a charming pub. The older parts of Toronto have a few which I intend to investigate! Out in Victoria, British Columbia, Fan Tan Alley may be this country’s slimmest street, being only 35 inches (89 cm) at its narrowest point.
No matter what their form or name, I love the idea of worn cobblestoned paths weaving their narrow, lamp-lit way between the half-timbered houses huddled overhead. But take care! Should you hear someone calling “Slops!” from the window of the bedroom above, you’d best step sprightly, lest the charwoman dump the contents of a thunder mug on your snickelway!
Next in the series: Crinkle crankles and ha-has!