diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 18, 2015

In a week of mega-anniversaries, today it's precisely 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo. Like me, I'm sure you'll be spending much of the day engaging in celebrations and commemorations of 1815's great Europe-defining battle. Here are some Waterloo-tastic places to visit, and activities to join, on this day of days.

Waterloo (Belgium)
My apologies. I was in the area last week, just 10 miles up the road in Brussels, but failed to drop in on this most famous battlefield so I could write some proper reportage. The Duke of Wellington picked this previously obscure village on the road to the Belgian capital in a last ditch attempt to prevent Napoleon's advance, set up camp behind the ridge and attempted to block the way. The ensuing ten-hour battle flipflopped from one side to the other, looking particularly bad for Britain at one point until the Prussian army rode in just in time to turn the tide. If you've forgotten the details of the battle and would like to brush up, this BBC iWonder page has a pretty good summary. Waterloo (Belgium) today is a fairly ordinary commuter suburb on the edge of green fields, where a conical mound rises from the battleground topped by a surly lion. Various recreations are taking place here this week and over the weekend, outside a small settlement whose name has since spread far and wide across the continent. Oh, and Waterloo means "marshy clearing in the forest", and nothing lavatorial, in case you've ever wondered.

Waterloo Bridge
It was going to be called Strand Bridge, but Wellington's victory occurred halfway through construction and a campaign for renaming was immediately successful. On the battle's second anniversary in 1817 it was therefore Waterloo Bridge that opened, a granite nine-arched span with double Doric stone columns. Engineering issues meant the river's flow caused increasing damage to the piers, so a decision was later made to replace the bridge with a new design by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. This opened partially in 1942 and fully at the end of the war, with reinforced concrete beams beneath the footways clad in Portland stone. The views from the pavement are some of the best in London, facing one way towards the Palace of Westminster and the other towards St Paul's. I'm less enamoured of the steps down on the Embankment side, which invariably smell of wee, but who could fail to love a bridge with a tramway tunnel emerging from the abutment?

Waterloo Road
Nothing to do with the alleged BBC drama, this is the street leading southeast from the southern end of Waterloo Bridge. It's a long street too, running all the way down to St George's Circus, and passing through the IMAX roundabout along the way. At the Thamesside end it passes between the National Theatre and the Hayward Gallery, the latter currently resplendent with spiralling slides as part of the Carsten Höller exhibition. It's harder to find much to get excited about further inland, unless you like takeaway food, but it's this road from that bridge that helped to ensure the whole of this riverside quarter got named after a small Belgian village.

Waterloo Station
Britain's largest, busiest and most platformed station is also named after the battlefield. This wasn't a deliberate pro-Wellington choice, the station having been opened long after the battle in 1848. At first it was known as Waterloo Bridge station, the 'Bridge' only being officially dropped in 1886. The main entrance is up a set of steps beneath a grand arch, where you'll find several memorials to railway workers killed in the world wars, but there's nothing here to commemorate the fallen of 1815. A tribute to Waterloo was only added last week, with the unveiling of a replica Waterloo Medal and inscription on the retail mezzanine. The memorial looks a little incongruous wedged in beside a Fatface, but then Waterloo has become an increasingly commercial place of late. Every available advertising space is currently taken up with promotional material for the new Jurassic World movie, including an Instagrammable dinosaur tableau and a branded pop-up shop. Meanwhile the week's big event at Waterloo isn't the anniversary, it's a new M&S, inelegantly crammed into a two-storey food and clothing cave. No doubt the French remain delighted that Eurostar services no longer deposit them at a station whose name rubs their defeated nation into the mud, as if that was ever deliberately planned.

Waterloo Festival
All is not lost, anniversary-wise, as the SE1 community gathers together in the vicinity of the station to commemorate its namesake battle. Events still to come include a tea party, a gala concert, several guided walks and a stationwide military band ensemble, although you've missed the charity Quiz Night including supper. Events are based around St John's Church, which hosted Radio 4's Any Questions last week, and if there's a distinctly underplayed local feel to proceedings that's probably no bad thing.

Waterloo & City line
One of London Underground's eleven lines is named after the Battle of Waterloo, so it's great to see management really getting into the spirit of the 200th anniversary today. At the Waterloo end a web of French and Flemish bunting has been draped across the entrance to the platforms, while commemorative tickets are to be issued, manually stamped by staff dressed in period artillery costume. All the trains have been redecorated so that the Duke of Wellington's face covers each window, and stirring military music will be playing as commuters arrive to begin their journey home.
(No, obviously I'm lying, as there are in fact no plans to waste public money on any form of bicentenary celebrations whatsoever, and most passengers using the line today won't even notice the connection to a Belgian battlefield, let alone the date)

Waterloo Place
London has umpteen other Waterloo-related place names, of which Waterloo Place is probably the most important. This lies at the foot of Regent Street, the open piazza where it crosses Pall Mall, part of the Nash development whose construction had just begun when the battle took place. Although bedecked with statues, none of these commemorate Waterloo, instead covering the Crimean War, the Battle of Britain and the Grand Old Duke of York. There's also a Waterloo Close in Homerton, a Waterloo Terrace in Islington and a Waterloo Gardens in Romford. Our Georgian ancestors were inordinately proud of their great European victory, splashing its name across all and sundry, only for us to take it all for granted today.

Waterloo Sunset/Waterloo
So, assuming you won't be visiting a Waterloo-related location today, why not simply enjoy one or both of the finest pop songs ever recorded. The Kinks' reflective masterpiece is cited by various top musicians as their favourite song of all time, while Abba's debut three minuter has yet to be beaten in the Eurovision hall of hummability. Has any other battle ever inspired quite so much creative genius, and geographical celebration?

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