Opposite the Royal Courts of Justice is what looks like a normal set of office doors that lead one of London’s best-hidden alleys.
The alley officially doesn’t have a name, being simply marked as a “public right of way” on old planning documents, but the Strand side has tiles for a long-standing occupant of the building it runs through, The Outer Temple, so that’s the name I am using for this article.
Arrive here during the working week, and you might not unreasonably presume that these doors lead to an office and are private, but they’re unlocked and it takes a simple push to open them up to what still looks like a private office corridor.
But no, it’s the public alley, although fairly recently given a smart makeover. Do continue down the corridor towards the glass doors at the end, and you’ll find a set of steps curving down, and into a totally different space.
Looking not unlike parts of the London Underground, here’s a long tiled corridor with iron glazing above leading down towards the quiet environs of the Middle Temple legal quarter.
So what’s this alley doing here?
It’s difficult to be sure as the maps of the time are not totally reliable, but there was an alley in this part of London, known as Palsgrave Court, after a local pub since the 1670s. It does seem likely to have been slightly to the west of the current passage though, so the current passage is probably preservation of access when a grand building on the site was built in 1883. They just shifted the alley slightly to the east at the time to make space for a wider building.
That grand building, best known as one of the best-decorated banks in London, was until 2017 a branch of Lloyds.
It wasn’t always a bank though, and owes its famously sumptuous interior decoration to its former use, as the Palsgrave Restaurant, which opened in 1883, and this is when the passageway gained its current layout as two straight lengths with a set of curved stairs in the middle.
The building’s basement extends under the passageway and this area of the basement was predominantly coal cellars at the time when coal was needed to heat the bank.
So as you walk down the alley, you’re walking above the old coal cellars. The rich decoration of the building’s frontage is Baroque in style, with the entrance to the passageway incorporated into the design, and the Outer Temple barristers offices are on the upper floors of the building.
As an aside, although two of the four Inns of Court are known as Inner Temple and Middle Temple, there’s no solid evidence that there was ever an Inn of Court called Outer Temple. It’s almost certainly just a name used by the barristers’ chambers.
Back to the restaurant, which was not a success and closed just a few years after it opened, and the building was leased to Lloyds Bank in 1894. They closed in 2017 and the ground floors and basement are due to be converted into a Weatherspoons pub.
The pub conversion won’t affect the alley, fortunately.
At the far end, inside Middle Temple, do admire the heavy wooden door that keeps the alley closed at weekends, and look up at the stonework. Notice the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, with a flag bearing St George’s Cross, the symbol of Middle Temple, and the date of 1883 for when the restaurant/bank was built.
This end of the alley often serves another purpose when the lawyers aren’t around. It’s a filming location for companies looking for a classic Victorian/Edwardian London scene.
In the song from Mary Poppins Returns, Trip a Little Light Fantastic, a lot of dancing takes place, including magical gas lighting inside the alley.
More obviously though, is how The Crown, in episode 5 of season 2 repurposed the entrance into a London Underground station, adding a tube roundel and old Penfold postbox.
The security office becomes the ticket office. That security office by the way is the building once occupied by a wig maker – as shown here in a drawing of the construction of the Palsgrave Restaurant in the 1880s. The office signs in the passage have also been covered with historically correct arrows – the feathers are a giveaway of the age.
So if you fancy showing off your incredible knowledge of hidden London to a friend, take a walk down Strand, and scare them by taking a detour through the “offices” and show off this very well hidden passageway.
Note that the outer doors are locked at weekends and evenings.