Snickelways and Walls: Walking York’s Passages

Summary: When I was growing up I used to play in Alleyways -- but York has Snickelways, which are more than just alleys. Snickelways are narrow passages between buildings that locals use to take shortcutes to navigate the city faster. And York's still-standing walls are, perhaps, its largest Snickelway.
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When I was a kid, in the days when kids spent bored Summer days playing outside, I spent some time lurking in neighborhood alleyways. Inventing clubs, playing hide-and-seek, and sometimes being up to no good made long Summer days with nothing to do pass quickly. When I visited York, I imagined all of the mischief I could have managed there with York’s many snickelways as my stomping grounds.

What is a Snickelway?

What’s a snickelway? York’s medieval city layout means that many narrow passageways between the buildings exist. These became known as the Snickelways of York.

“Snickelway” sounds like it could be a charming Old English word or something from Harry Potter. And some of the Snickelways have names that tickle my muggle sense of humor (Nether Hornpot Lane, for one.) Therefore, I was a little disappointed to find that (at least according to the venerable Wikipedia,) author Mark W. Jones coined the word. And not in The Year of Our Lord 1600 but 1983 CE.

Nether Hornpot Lane is one of York's Snickelways

Jones’ book A Walk Around the Snickelways of York   (which seems to be out of print but is usually readily available on Amazon), is the definitive guide to “snickeling.” Jones explains that snickelways is a portmanteau word combining snicket (any relation to Lemony?), ginnel, and alleyway, all terms used to describe different types of passageways.

Jones’ book gives a walkthrough of the snickelways, which also turns out to be a great way to self-tour York.

A Snickelways Journey

When you walk York’s Snickelways, you might find your 3.5-mile walk turning into a daylong adventure. There’s plenty to get distracted by along the way. I gave up trying to record my walk and attempted to recreate the route later (see the map below.)

The map is a close approximation to the way described in the book, and the path I walked. However, a few shortcuts (like the in and outs in the Shambles,) were difficult to map.

If you want to walk all of the snickelways, your best bet is just to get the book. It’s the best available reference and includes handwritten print and delightful black and white sketches. It’s a keeper and, somehow, one I’ll keep looking through from time to time even if I never get back to York.

Image of a York Snickelways Route Map

Above is an image of a route map of the Snickelways. You can click here or on the map to get to the page with the interactive version.

Your Snickelways journey starts at the hole in the wall just past Bootham Bar (in York, the gates are bars, and the streets end with -gate.) It takes you past many (but not all) of the places I’ve listed in the Things to do in York post, including the ever-popular Shambles.

Above: Sketches from The Snickelways of York by Mark W. Jones match the view walking to York Minster from Precentor’s Court.

Walking York’s Walls

York's Walls

Walking York’s Walls

The Snickelways of York book   suggests that York’s biggest snickelways are its walls.

Other medieval cities like London, had walls, of course, but only fragments remain in most. In York, large sections of the medieval walls remain and are very walkable.

Walking York’s walls was my favorite way of getting around the city during my stay. My AirBNB in York, located near Mickelgate bar, was near a wall entrance, and I frequently walked the wall on my way into the central part of town.

York’s Wall Routes

York’s walls end in some places. Despite the signs around the route with handy QR codes, I got confused in spots and had to search for the next walkable portion of the wall. For the best experience, you might want to bring a guidebook. The Friends of York Walls website has maps and a handy guide for a thorough wall walk.

There’s also a written Walking Guide to York City Walls   available on Kindle or as a paperback.

Some parts of the wall have a safety fence on one side, and a few sections have a drop off with no barrier. Where I live, there would be fences and signs all around to prevent lawsuits injuries. But it seems York (fortunately) trusts in the common-sense of the visitor.

Walking the walls also made me feel a bit like a kid again — or a nosy neighbor. Some sections of wall adjoined homes and gave glimpses into some beautiful backyards. 

Have you walked York’s snickelways? Leave a comment!

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