From 18 July to 19 August 2023, history enthusiasts and curious wanderers had the unique opportunity to delve into the rich tapestry of Marble Arch’s past through a captivating series of free walks. Aptly named Discover Marble Arch, these character-led walks were a journey back in time, revealing the hidden stories and vibrant history that shaped this iconic London area.
At the heart of the district stands the legendary Marble Arch, one of London’s most renowned monuments. The timing of these tours couldn’t have been more perfect, coinciding with English Heritage‘s meticulous restoration of the Arch. Participants had the privilege of delving deep into the rich history of the monument, guided by none other than John Nash, the architect himself, metaphorically brought back to life! They learned about the Arch’s original design and its initial placement at the entrance to Buckingham Palace, gaining insights into the meticulous craftsmanship that is being restored to its original glory.
The walks took participants on a journey beyond the Arch, exploring the richness of the area’s history. Grisly tales of executions at the infamous Tyburn Tree were unearthed. This triangular structure accommodated up to 24 hangings simultaneously, a macabre testament to its grim efficiency. The King’s Gallows, as it was known, bore witness to over 50,000 executions between 1196 and 1783, a somber reminder of a bygone era’s harsh justice. In 1961, the construction works needed to build the pedestrian subways around Marble Arch, uncovered large quantities of human bones around the site – the remains of those executed there.
And trodden by unheeding feet a spot which memory hallows;
Where Edgware Road meets Oxford Street stood Tyburn’s fearsome gallows.
Continuing the journey, participants were led to the Tyburn Convent, a profound contrast to the bustling Marble Arch vicinity. Within its walls resides a contemplative community of Benedictine nuns, known for their vow never to leave the convent unless a medical urgency arises. This unique glimpse into a secluded way of life stands in stark contrast to the vibrant cityscape just beyond its gates.
Adjacent to this spiritual enclave, the Smallest House in London beckons. Measuring a mere three feet across, its minuscule size is a remarkable architectural quirk. A ladder connects its two rooms, providing an intimate insight into historical London’s ingeniously economical living spaces.
The history of Speakers’ Corner, a beacon of free speech and spirited debates, was painted vividly, echoing with the voices of those who had once stood there to champion their beliefs. Since the mid-19th century, Speakers’ Corner, nestled by Marble Arch, has been a haven for free speech and fervent discussions. This historical gem within Hyde Park has welcomed impassioned orators and their voices have reverberated through time, leaving an indelible mark on the corner’s legacy. From political activists to religious proponents, Speakers’ Corner encapsulates the essence of democratic dialogue, where ideas clash, perspectives intersect, and the freedom to speak one’s mind is celebrated in a vibrant tapestry of discourse.
As participants embarked on these character-led walking tours, they became time travelers, journeying through the annals of Marble Arch’s history. They walked the same streets where kings and queens once trod, where protests and processions had left an indelible mark, and where the spirit of free expression had found its home. Discover Marble Arch was an invitation to understand the district’s legacy and to become a part of it, contributing their own stories to the ongoing narrative. As the last tour concluded, those who took part carried with them not only a deeper understanding of the area’s history but also a renewed sense of connection to the vibrant heart of London itself.
Architect John Nash led 30 character-led walks in total, including a signed walk with a BSL interpreter and five community walks with local community partners, with over 330 people attending the walks.
Discover Marble Arch, launched by Marble Arch London BID in partnership with Westminster Council, was part of the Inside Out programme, which weaves art, culture, and history into the urban fabric of Central London with free outdoor exhibitions and performances, sculpture trails that lead to unexpected discoveries, and of course immersive walking tours that breathe life into historical narratives.