Well Alley is just one of the several alleys that nowadays form shortcuts to and from the main streets of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire and I explored it on my first evening in the town.
Today they are sanitised and many of the tenements that lined them have been demolished allowing sunlight into their depths where once the sun never shone on the poverty. What were once overcrowded hovels, of those remaining, are now picture postcard residences with hanging baskets of late flowering pansies, glossy painted doors and clean brickwork.
While I was in Tewkesbury Library trying to find out more about Well Alley specifically I did find out that the first recorded alley was developed in 1540. In her book ‘Tewkesbury’ Anthea Jones describes the reasons for these alleys:
‘The alleys were partly a response to the shortage of building land around the main streets, but partly they represent a method of making small income for the property owner’. A very early form of ‘back development’ which continues to this day in urban areas but with a lot better control.
My walk took me from the High Street near the Tudor House Hotel and through Well Alley. Just inside the entrance to the alley I was able to stretch both my arms out and touch both sides at once. That is how narrow it is. The alley then cuts through to Oldbury Road where I turned left. Then past the Roses Theatre and into a modern shopping centre housing a Tesco’s Express, Boots and the usual High Street names. In one corner outside Tesco’s were four people. Three were teenagers who had parked their bikes against the lamp post. The fourth person sat on the cold pavement smoking. There was a dog snuggling into one side and his world seemed to be in a back pack on his other side. At least he had some company at the start of his night out on the streets.
Further down where the shopping centre joined the High Street a few people were rushing by to get home from work or had rushed to wait for buses to get them home. On the front step of one shop a man was sitting hunched up on his phone talking loudly. I overheard him say something about the ATM telling him his bank card was invalid and then something about sorting out his taxes. I think his problems were so great that he didn’t actually care if Tewkesbury heard about them or not.
At least neither of these men had to sit in alleys ‘much loaded with offensive filth’. (T W Russell Board of Health Report published in 1841).