Marble Arch review
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If you're expecting Marble Arch to compare with the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or the Arch of Constantine in Rome, then forget it – you're going to be extremely disappointed. The best arch in London is Wellington Arch, at the top of Constitution Hill, but Marble Arch was never supposed to be anything other than the Queen's front gate.
One hundred and seventy years ago (a bit before my time) Buckingham Palace was just three wings around a courtyard, and Marble Arch was the ceremonial gateway into middle. It stood roughly where the forecourt is today (where they do Changing the Guard). But when Queen Victoria started churning out the babies she decided to expand the palace by building a fourth wing -- that entire front wing where the famous balcony is. Marble Arch obviously looked a bit daft then, so they shifted it brick-by-brick to the corner of Hyde Park.
What a demotion! It's just a dirty roundabout at the end of Oxford Street. The concrete courtyard is home to a load of mangy old pigeons, and tired old homeless geezers. All of the benches are covered in raindrops and pigeon sh*t (not a nice combination) -- I have never seen so many pigeons. They used to live in Trafalgar Square until the Mayor of London scared them off with sparrowhawks, so now they've settled down here instead -- it's like one of those migrant camps you see on the news. They hog all of the benches and sit there preening their falling-out feathers. The rest of the benches are filled with office workers and homeless people on a begging break, having a quick five minute kip before resuming their day job down Oxford Street.
What else can I see? The rest of the square is decorated with dustbins and parked-up council vans, and damp flags hanging off flag poles, like dirty pairs of pants on a washing line.
The arch is quite nice, though. As long as you don't mind its size.
Apparently if you walk through the central section then you can get arrested for treason (a throwback to its days in front of the palace). Of course I tried it, but no cops came calling. I probably shouldn't have admitted to that though, just in case there are some policemen reading.
Whilst you're here you might like to try and find the two little plaques that are buried in the road nearby. The first one is on a traffic island a little further west, down the Bayswater Road, and is supposed to mark the original location of the Tyburn Tree. The Tyburn Tree is not a tree trunk -- it's actually a euphemism for a set of wooden gallows. A few hundred years ago this end of Oxford Street was the darkness on the edge of town (as Bruce Springsteen would say), and they carted up the condemned from Newgate Prison to tie their heads to the end of a rope. Plenty of people have died at this spot. Thousands of low-lifes and scum, and hundreds of innocents, too. And probably a fair few have been knocked down by the buses in modern times, because the traffic around here is terrible.
The second plaque is supposed to show the final resting place of Oliver Cromwell, after Charles II dug up his bones and hanged them, in revenge for beheading his dad. Can you imagine the difficulty he had in hanging a corpse, that had already been rotting in the ground for two years? You have to take your hat off to Charles for giving it a go. I've probably visited Marble Arch about a million times in my life (at least), but I have never once managed to find this plaque. And you can believe me when I say that I have hunted high and low for it. I am starting to think that it doesn't actually exist... but maybe you will have better luck.
While we're here, I'm just going to say a little something about the Edgware Road, because no guidebook ever spares a thought for this place. And the reason for that is this: it's ugly. It's even uglier than me, and that is really saying something, because I am pretty ugly. I used to think it was a total dump, too, but I've actually softened to it now (it's still ugly, though).
The first time you come down here I guarantee that you will think it's a total disaster. There is not a single nice piece of architecture down here — not one! It's all concrete office blocks and council towers. It's full of Iranian cafes and Lebanese restaurants. All of the shop signs are in that Middle Eastern cursive script, and I haven't got a clue what most of them sell. They are a few Turkish travel agents and Arabic hair salons dotted around, and plenty of mentions of Damascus and Beruit. But come down here at night and you'll see it in a whole different light.
If you ever stay in a Paddington hotel then this is where you'll be getting the bus every night -- probably the No.23 from The City. That's when you can stare out of the window and into the windows of the restaurants. They are full of colourful fairy lights and decorations. Old men sit outside the front doors sucking on those long teapot-like tubes (bongs, we used to call them). I can see them stubbornly sitting outside in their hats and coats, sucking on those tendril-like tobacco tubes, in between the shivers, because it's about minus ten degrees tonight. English OAPs have a pint down the British Legion, whilst these Middle Eastern guys settle for a puff outside their pavement cafes, discussing whatever it is that old men discuss. Other cafes are full of moustachioed men with collars and ties. They are the Middle Eastern equivalent of those Mafia cafes you see in the movies, where fat Italians stand in the doorway, guarding the big guy at the back. How come other countries have a cafe culture, and we don't? We need to invent one, because we're missing out.
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