Marble Arch review
Christmas shopping down Oxford Street reminds me of walking down Wembley Way after you've escaped the stands, everyone streaming out the stadium to catch the last tube home. That is how busy it used to be 250 years ago when we spent our Saturday afternoons in the little town of Tyburn (modern-day Marble Arch). You've got to use your imagination a little bit, but try and disappear all the shops and drop in a crowd of thousands around a three-tiered gallows. Add in a grandstand as well (it even had a grandstand!), and picture everyone pushing and shoving and sloshing ale all over the place. Then you'll have some idea what this place used to look like on execution day.
There were three grades of traitor in London. If you wanted to have a nice private beheading on Tower Green then you had to be related to a Royal. If you were just rich and powerful (maybe a bit too powerful) then you'd end up on Tower Hill. And if you were a total loser like me then they'd drag you two miles outside of town to Tyburn.
Your big day would have begun at Newgate Prison (now the Old Bailey) where you'd be shackled to the back of a cart and paraded to Seymour Place for one final pint in the Mason's Arms (the street is still there, but the pub is long gone). Once you'd drunk enough to forget what was happening they'd drag you to the scaffold. If you look around the traffic islands today then you'll find a circular plaque marking the exact spot where it used to be.
Even blind drunk it must still have been the most terrifying death imaginable. It's pretty scary crossing the busy roads around Marble Arch today, but back then there would have been a crowd of thousands cheering and jeering as they roughly strung you up. The final lines that you'd been practising all week would probably have just disappeared into the wall of noise and soon you'd be new fruit on the Tyburn tree (the euphemistic name they gave to the gallows). If you had any friends left then they'd rush over and pull on your feet to squeeze all of the juice out of your stem.
Sixty thousand people are believed to have met their end here between 1388 and 1783. Roll on 250 years and the crowds have become shoppers. The gallows have turned into traffic lights and that grandstand is now the triumphal Marble Arch. The only thing that remains the same are the condemned men, but now they're shuffling between the benches waving two fingers around their lips begging for cigarettes through the cloud of strawberry smoke emanating from the vapers -- those things pump out more smoke than a Lowry painting. Those youngsters won't have any money, mate -- they live in a cashless society. They smoke nicotine-free cigarettes and eat meat-free sausages. They are people of the future.
He soon gives up begging and sits down to watch the ping pong match. They've placed a couple of tables five feet from the arch and two office workers are smacking the ball back and forth across a table. From public hangings to ping pong in 250 years.
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