diamond geezer

 Monday, January 29, 2018

Location: 149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner W1J 7NT [map]
Open: weekends 10am-4pm (from Easter, Wed-Sun 11am-5pm)
Admission: £9.30 (£11.20 inc. Wellington Arch)
Website: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/apsley-house
Five word summary: Wellington's London townhouse, and museum
Time to allow: 1-1½ hours

Two years after trouncing Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington used some of his payoff to buy a gentleman's townhouse at the foot of Piccadilly. The gentleman in question was his elder brother Robert, who was in financial trouble at the time, and the house has been in the family ever since. All the other townhouses hereabouts are long gone, many levelled when Park Lane was widened, making Apsley House a fascinating survivor even without all the Wellingtonia stashed within.

Visitors enter via the front door, which may sound trite, but twisting the knob brings you into the main hall just as two centuries of owners and guests have stepped inside before. The walls are already pretty showy, but I can't show you that because photography is banned everywhere within the house. That's actually quite refreshing, and allows visitors to focus on the interior rather than forever waving their phones, but if you are the kind of person who feels the need to visually document everywhere you go, expect to be permanently twitchy. My top tip is to definitely take the audio-visual guide, which is excellent, specifically how each room has a submenu of extra detail at roughly one minute a shot.

The ground floor contains a museum room, dimly lit, which stores treasures the Iron Duke was given by grateful European leaders. The porcelain dinner services are the most impressive, gorgeously illustrated by Meissen and Sevres, but the silver gilt 'shield' in the end cabinet also holds its own. Perhaps more astonishing is the 11 foot nude marble statue of Napoleon which stands at the foot of the main stairwell, his dignity covered only by a figleaf. Wellington had a grudging respect for his greatest adversary, and took delivery of the statue when the French decided they no longer wanted it, but only after having the floor specially strengthened.

Upstairs is a circuit of rooms, mostly plushly-decorated chambers whose walls are bedecked with art. Portraits of military comrades fill one room, massive paintings of crowned heads of state cover another. The tale is also told of Wellington's life as a national celebrity, which culminated in him becoming Prime Minister for a time, a divisive figure much mocked by the satirists of his day. The oldest surviving English grand piano takes pride of place in the music room, and glittering chandeliers dangle from several ceilings. You'll not reach the second floor because the current Duke's apartments are up there, but his back garden can be clearly seen, with a swing and seesaw in the centre and the traffic on Park Lane swirling behind the hedge.

Apsley House's most impressive room is the Waterloo Chamber, a long lofty gallery large enough for an 84-seater dining table and umpteen works of art. Wellington liked to host an annual dinner here on the anniversary of his most famous battle, specifically for surviving comrades, although the occasional monarch sometimes sidled in too. Many of the paintings are rescued booty from the Peninsular War, which the King of Spain said he didn't want back, including some rather fine Velásquez. Do try to time your visit for the excellent free talk given by a member of staff, and then you'll see how the windows could be replaced by full length mirrors, perfect for reflecting candlelight back into the room.

Location: Hyde Park Corner W1J 7JZ [map]
Open: daily 10am-4pm (from Easter, closes at 6pm)
Admission: £5.00 (£11.20 inc. Apsley House)
Website: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wellington-arch
Five word summary: The ultimate traffic island embellishment
Time to allow: 30 mins - 1 hour

Hyde Park Corner wasn't always a roundabout, but used to be a quiet corner of Green Park. Shortly after the Duke of Wellington moved in at Apsley House a pair of grand gateways was built, facing each other across Piccadilly, designed by precocious twenty-something Decimus Burton. His classical screen at the entrance to Hyde Park hasn't moved, but his Green Park arch was shifted in 1883 to face down Constitution Hill instead, forming a ceremonial gateway ideal for trotting or marching through. At the same time a controversially mammoth statue of Wellington on horseback was removed from the top, and dumped in Aldershot, and the splendid winged chariot we see today arrived in 1912. This 'quadriga' is still Europe's largest bronze statue, and that's Nike (the Winged Goddess of Victory) at the reins.

The Wellington Arch is hollow, and at one point contained London's smallest police station. One leg is currently used for ventilation from the Piccadilly underpass below, while the other is what visitors get to explore, plus the space at the top above the archway, plus two narrow outdoor terraces. You begin in the tiny bookshop on the ground floor, then have the option of continuing upwards via elevator or stairs. There are only 60 stairs, so the ascent's not especially punishing, but my subconscious took one look at the cantilevered treads and propelled me into the lift.

The first floor houses a small exhibition about the history of the arch, informative if not in-depth, and features casts from the mega-statue on the roof. The second floor is closed to the public ("Do not press the button for floor two", said the bloke in the gift shop, "One and three only"). The third floor, which is larger, tells the story of the battle of Waterloo, spilling out into an additional gallery at roof level. These displays were recently upgraded for the bicentenary, even managing to slip in a reference to Abba, with the centrepiece a looped video depicting the strategic nuances of the engagement. Wellington's greatest victory was won by an army less than half British, rescued by the late arrival of the Prussians, whatever you think you may have been taught in school.

What you're really up here for, though, is the view. On one side you can see straight down Constitution Hill, and far over the back wall of Buckingham Palace into the Queen's back garden (blocked in summer by a screen of leaves). On the other side there's Hyde Park, and Apsley House, and a huge hole where a luxury 190-room hotel is destined to arise. Longer distance views aren't quite so memorable, Westminster being generally lowrise, but what's great is simply watching the maelstrom of Hyde Park Corner spin around you. And just above your head a quartet of reared-up hooves bears down, its charioteer alas not quite visible, because you'll need to be back down on the ground for that.

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