Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A Good Hanging

Streets Ahead is the column from London Walks' Pen David Tucker

Here’s why you go with a great guide.

If I’m on a walking tour – or indeed a coach tour – that goes by Marble Arch I don’t want to be told “that’s Marble Arch…and just behind it there is Speakers’ Corner”.

Or I don’t want to be told that and have it left it that.

Don’t tell me something I already know. Something everybody knows.

Tell me something I don’t know. Something interesting.

Yes, sure, tell me that “this is where ‘the Tyburn tree’ – the gallows – stood.”

But don’t leave it at that.

Tell me what a great guide would tell me. Something a really experienced, really knowledgeable, really bright guide would tell me.

Tell me, for example, this:

“That’s Speakers’ Corner there – none of the tourists, and for that matter none of the speakers and their hecklers, know that they’re standing exactly where firing squads shot soldiers.”

Let that sink in. And then follow it with just a touch of corroboration.

“We know that from an 18th century map. There it is on the map – the map maker saw fit to label, to identify the killing ground. He identifies it with four stark words: “Where Soldiers are Shot.”

But see for yourself. Here’s the relevant portion of the map. You have to look hard, but there it is. Toward the lower left hand corner you can see three roads converging. The one coming in from the left hand side is Edgware Road. The one that runs up the page is Oxford Street today. You can see it was just called Turnpike in those days. Its continuation, which runs off the bottom of the page, is Bayswater Road today.

Where they meet, well, you can see the three legged gallows. On “hanging days” people would be hanging from each of the three cross bars. Just to make sure there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind, the map maker’s supplied the chilling word “Tiburn”. That one word was all that was necessary. He didn’t need to say the Tyburn Gallows. Or Tyburn Tree. Tiburn sufficed.

And then if you look fairly closely, running parallel to the word Tiburn, and just to the right of it, the equally chilling phrase, Where Soldiers are Shot.  

So plain. So blunt. So matter of fact. Four words that mainline us straight into 18th century London. What happened there. One of the “matters of fact” – part of the literal and mental landscape of 18th century London.  A given. “That’s the way it is. That’s what this place is like. That’s how we do it. That’s life and death – and where we die (some of us) – in 18th century London.”

And you can do more with the map. Just along the “Turnpike” – Oxford Street – from the gallows and the firing squad position you can see the words “Mile Stone. Just after it there’s a turning on the right. It’s Park Lane today. But on the map it’s just Tyburn. They changed the name didn’t they? It’s easy to understand why. Park Lane is very grand today. Home to some of the most palatial houses in the capital, to say nothing of, for example, the Dorchester Hotel. And given the “associations” of the word Tyburn in the London of yesteryear, well, nobody – certainly not people of the sort who built and lived in those Park Lane palaces – would have wanted to give as their address, “oh I live on Tyburn.” That’d be like Bill Gates buying up the Spahn Ranch – of Charles Manson fame – building on it and not changing the name, making sure that the “Manson Family” associations lived on. And on.

That’s great guiding. It comes from the depth and width of a lifetime’s reading, a lifetime’s digging down ever deeper into the rich loam of London’s history. It’s the kind of detail that makes us blink in wonder. And it’s manifestly not the kind of detail that an inexperienced, 19-year-old college student “guide” will have any purchase on. It’s a question of experience. A guide in his or her prime – with years of experience – has more fish in his net. And that means more fish in your net.

That’s why you go with a great guide.  

A London Walk costs £10 – £8 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at

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