We braved the Bowie-loving crowds at the V&A the other day to visit the museum's shop and inspect the wonderful displays for a season of cycling-themed shopping and events which use Deanna Halsall's artwork from our map, An Uncle's Guide To London. To see the work on this scale in surroundings so beautiful and illustrious was thrilling. The photographs don't do it justice, but we hope perhaps give some flavour.
News this week that Marine Ices in Chalk Farm has been sold to Ponti’s, coupled with the shuttering of Soho’s Lorelei has brought on the clouds of melancholy.
Stonebow House puts up with a lot of abuse. Few love it, many hate it. Just a few steps from the picturesque Shambles, all cobbles and beams, this brutalist tower does seem a little at odds with its surroundings. All that concrete just doesn't seem very York, or so the critics would sniffily tell you.
I used to be one of those sniffilers, turning my nose up at this office block/job centre/car park thing whenever I walked by. And then one day – I don't know why exactly – it struck me. It's beautiful. Stonebow House is an Eliza Doolittle of a building, its common-as-muck appearance hiding so much soul and untapped potential.
No, it doesn't "fit". But so what? All these other historical buildings were erected decades, centuries apart. They didn't fit either. But they endeared themselves to the story of the city, earning their place through some kind of urban-evolutionary architectural selection.
What this dilapidated 1960s modernist clunk needs is the same TLC afforded to so many other buildings around here. In the lower levels, a couple of gig venues deliver some after-hours culture, as if the council have solved a soundproofing problem by burying music under tonnes of concrete. Above ground, it's home to the Job Centre, a couple of small businesses and perpetually empty office space.
It's all a bit sad really.
But it doesn't have to be this way. As with most brutalist architecture, this concrete monolith is a blank canvas. It can stay looking miserable and alone, or it could be … anything.
Look at London's South Bank. Not that long ago, it too was a bleak slab nothingness. And then something changed. It started to make an effort. Shops, restaurants, culture, colour arrived. And people followed. It's not hard to imagine something similar working in York. Turn that plateau car park into an open air performance space, turn the abandoned offices into a much-needed contemporary art gallery, the ground floor units into pop-up shops. All it takes is a developer with vision and a bit of bravery from the council.
So don't dismiss Stonebow House just yet, no matter how unhappy it looks. It doesn't need to be put out of its misery, it needs to be awoken. Nothing happens here. But so much could. And should.
A city built over centuries, restrained within defensive walls, York's streets are crushed together in all sorts of messy ways. It's very easy for a visitor here to lose their bearings, the only hope of geographical reference being the occasional peek of the towering Minster between buildings. Hundreds of years of redevelopment and conservation have jumbled up the puzzle of architectural styles and urban ideologies. Sandwiched between the wonky buildings on these wonky streets, there are crevices and creases in the city.
These are more than just alleyways. These are snickelways. Or some call them snickets. Or maybe ginnels. Hairlines on the map. Whatever they are, they're essential to the fabric of York, for tourists and residents alike.
For tourists – the adventurous, let's-just-bloody-well-get-lost-and-see-what-happens-kind – these anonymous portals between shops throw up unexpected courtyards and connections and colourful stories. Who was the Mad Alice of Mad Alice Lane? What exactly is a Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate? With these and other historical (and often sanitised) names around the city – Brownie Dyke, Bitchdaughter Tower, Gropecunt Lane – York betrays a rather colourful, family-unfriendly history.
For residents – they are wormholes, safe and swift passages through chaos. Blinkered to the historical theme park that York becomes when the coaches unload in the morning, sometimes you just need to get through town and get on with your life. And that's when the snickelways really deliver. Between them and the handful of shops with multiple entrances (BHS, Laura Ashley, Browns), it's possible to get from one side of York to the other without having to deal with a single horde of pac-a-mac pensioners. At Christmas – oh the chaos that is York at Christmas – knowledge of this network of architectural fissures means the difference between a regular supply of Betty's mince pies and misery.
They aren't pretty, they're filled with bins and pigeon crap and pools of last night's piss (a drunk in York always knows where the nearest snickelway is), but they're our gaps and they're just perfect.