IT’S only about 50 yards long and you’d have a job finding out where it is now because someone’s pinched the name plate but at one time Rack Alley was one of Worcester’s most important little thoroughfares.

It leads off The Butts towards the city centre and was back in the news last week after complaints about it being blocked.

It used to be a useful cut-through but in more recent times its seclusion made it an ideal location for dodgy dealings or, when the adjoining Images nightclub was in full blast, a place where security could drag troublemakers they had ejected to quietly discuss their future behaviour.

However, in its heyday, which goes back to the Middle Ages, Rack Alley was anything but secluded. In fact it was jam-packed with action.

When most look back at Worcester’s manufacturing past, the subjects usually covered are porcelain, gloves or engineering.

But before any of those there was the cloth trade which was bigger than any although it’s rarely mentioned now. That’s where Rack Alley fits in.

During the reign of King John in the early 1200s and for 400 years after, the dominant industry in Worcester was cloth with the city becoming one of the largest producers of broad cloth in England.

The trade prospered around the Dolday and Newport Street area by the river and at its peak, in the 15th and 16th centuries, half of the city’s employed population – an estimated 8,000 people - worked in the cloth industry.

In fact, Worcester gained an international reputation for its cloth with merchants coming from across Europe to buy it.

In medieval Worcester, there was a weekly market and after 1218 an annual fair.

In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but held only once a year and buyers and sellers would come from all over Herefordshire and Worcestershire to attend a Worcester fair.

The number of fairs increased during the Middle Ages and by 1500 there were four.

In Worcester, the main industry was making woollen cloth. The wool was woven, then it was fulled (pounded in a mixture of clay and water to clean and thicken it) during which wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. Afterward, the wool was dyed.

During the process, the woollen cloth was hung over racks to dry and that’s where Rack Alley came in.

It its day it was the area of the city where most of the racks were set up and many 18th-century engravings show the racks built on the open land nearby.

On completion the cloth was sent for sale - often to London - and was sold at the appropriately-named Worcester Hall in Blackwell Hall, Harrow.

However, as times changed Blackwell Hall's business declined and the building was demolished between 1812 and 1820 to make way for a bankruptcy court.

The Butts, the road Rack Alley joins, harks back to the days when every man had to prepare for the defence of his city.

Just to the north of the city walls was a wide-open area that had long been used as a practice ground for archery. Through this land, which was mainly orchards, runs The Butts.

One of the features of area in the early 19th century was a Cold Bath. Mentioned in records in 1802, this stood on the south side of The Butts and was marked at one time by the presence of Bath Cottage and Bath House.

It was fed by an underground stream and held the claim of being one of the purest waters in the kingdom at a time when it was fashionable to bath and wash at such places.

The city wall was eventually demolished eastwards from Bath House, which itself has gone, but parts of it remain on the west (river) side of The Butts where houses were built on top of it.

One of these is Northwall House, an 18th-century property with a 19th-century Gothic-style faced decorated with coloured tiles.

It was home to Worcester’s first grammar school for girls and later became a private house.

After it fell empty in 1985 the Grade II building deteriorated badly, squatters moved in and with parts of the roof gone it was open to the weather.

Fortunately a major private restoration programme in the mid-1990s got it back on track.

So at least it is still around. Unlike the cloth racks which were once so important to Worcester.