London – Round About Holborn

Take that chilly-sounding gateway, the Marble Arch, as a point de depart for a walk some idle afternoon, and I will show you what I found the day I turned my back on it. It looks as bored by its inactivity as Theophile Gautier’s Obelisque ; perhaps it regrets the days when it faced Buckingham Palace and feels it came down in the world when it was moved to its present position some seventy years ago.

And that, too, is another indignity. Very many people ask why the Marble Arch is stranded all by itself, like a rock from which the flood has receded. The reason is as simple as most utilitarian things. The press of traffic at the Marble Arch was so great that the space had to be widened. It would have been too costly a matter to move the Marble Arch back, so the park railings were moved and the Arch left high and dry, no longer a gateway but only an object of interest.

I grant you that at first sight the Oxford Street and Holborn of today have a blatantly modern look. There is little to remind one in the kaleidoscopic vista of badly-dressed shop windows, gaudy buildings and dingy offices, that Roman soldiers once tramped along this very road. It took about a thousand years from the time that Agricola recalled his Roman legions from England for the discomfort of the Holborn mudholes to become unendurable, and for Henry V. to follow in 1417 the earlier example of his French confrere Philippe Auguste and cause the king’s highway to be paved at his expense. The paving does not seem to have been kept in good repair, for the garrulous Pepys says, 25o years later, that the king’s coach was overturned in Holborn.

Travellers along Holborn, at the other end of the social scale, shared in the royal benefit, for from 1196 to 1783 condemned criminals were brought in carts from Newgate Prison to Tyburn Tree. Everyone has heard of the famous gallows, but few people know that the exact spot where it stood is marked today by a triangular stone set in the roadway, almost opposite the beginning of the Edgware Road. A bronze plate on the railings of the Park, on the other side of the road, commemorates the fact, but if both stone and plate elude you, the friendly policeman who is always on duty here will point them out.

From the Marble Arch to Holborn there is nothing to look at but interminable shops till you come to the quaint old houses of Staple Inn, as disdainfully out of keeping with their vulgar surroundings as an orchid would be in an onion bed.