This is a narrow alley leading off Borough High Street in Southwark with a link to one of England’s most famous stories. The alley was once home to a famous coaching inn, and plays a key part in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Today it’s lost all its history, being more a back alley that gives access to the back of shops and Guys Hospital’s sprawling estate behind.
The alley likely dates from at least 1300, as there was an old and famous coaching inn on the site, the Tabard Inn, and later the area developed around it, so that the coaching inn ended up inside the alley. However, the alley was not initially named after the Inn as was usual, being called initially Vine Office Court, possibly a reference to the wine trades being carried out there.
The Tabard Inn was in the part of Southwark that was under the control of the famously corrupt Bishops of Winchester, and pretty lawless. However, it was also an important staging point for coaches, and the area was known as a stopping point for pilgrims heading to Canterbury.
The popularity of the Tabard Inn is thought to be why Geoffrey Chaucer chose it to be the starting point for The Canterbury Tales.
The alley can be seen clearly on William Morgan’s map of 1682, as the area was heavily developed by then, and there were, and still are, a lot of alleys leading off the main road. The inn was destroyed though in a large fire of 1669 that destroyed a large part of Southwark. The inn was rebuilt, but also renamed the Talbot Inn, and that’s where Talbot Yard gets its name from.
For some reason, the alley shrank considerably in the late 18th-century, becoming a very small courtyard. However, some 50 years or so later it had expanded again, possibly due to the demolition of the Talbot Inn in 1873 and the alley was lined with Hop Warehouses for the beer trade.
The current layout emerged fairly recently, around the 1940s, when the dead end was rebuilt with an arch leading to a courtyard and another arch through to the road beyond. The first of the two arches have since vanished due to rebuilding works, so what’s left is a long narrow road leading to a tall brick arch and the Guys Hospital estate.
The entrance to the alley from Borough High Street is flanked by shops, the northern side being a former pub, and is worth looking up at the decorative slightly ecclesiastical style brickwork and stone balconies for the upper salon. The alley is lined on the north side with old offices and on the south by a shabby warehouse building. Quite remarkably, the location of the inn that stood here for some 500 years still hasn’t been built on, so as you head into the alley, look for an open courtyard to the north side, which looks like a carpark, and that’s where the Inn stood.
There is a blue plaque, but it’s next to the car park on the old office building.
Further down the yard is very much a delivery space for the hospital, with a mix of Victorian buildings at the far end and a modern block of student flats to the side. The area is lined with motorbikes and delivery vans and lots of storage for air conditioning units behind metal fences. It’s not an appealing sight, but it’s worth heading further down for something interesting.
At the far end is the remaining brick arch, a double-height and impressive archway passing through the hospital building. There are a couple of doorways at street level, but also one halfway up the wall, likely to have been used for lifting up deliveries or dropping waste onto a cart below.
A faded white panel on a corner has some hard to read text on it, but I can just about make out Nurse and Thomas in the text, so likely linked to the former St Thomas’ Hospital nearby. Passing through the arch you are into the hospital estate, although still on nominally public roads.
As an alley, it’s long since been shorn of its history, but the blue plaque and the brick arch are a rewarding sight if you visit.