London: The Wellington Arch

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If you’ve ever been to Hyde Park Corner, you’ve probably noticed the Wellington Arch looming nearby.  What you might not have known (unless you noticed people standing on the balcony) is that you can actually go inside the Arch.  It’s owned by English Heritage, and as such there is a fee (£4.20), but my membership doesn’t expire until the spring, so I put that card to good use once again.

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It’s four flights of stairs up to the top, or you can use the lift, but I like the sense of accomplishment I get from taking the stairs, so up we went.  There are museum displays on three of the levels, but they recommend you head straight up to the top first and then make your way back down.  The balcony is a bit odd because it’s split in two by the museum floor, so you have to go back in and then out the opposite door to see around the entire Arch.

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As you can see, it was quite overcast when we visited (no surprises there) but that meant there were barely any other visitors, and didn’t stop us from getting tourist-esque shots of the London Eye and the Shard (and the back garden of Buckingham Palace, where the BFG is meant to live).

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Back inside the Arch (which smells pleasantly like a crypt…or maybe I’m the only one who enjoys the smell of damp limestone?), the small museum space on the fourth floor is dedicated to WWI memorials, with pictures of a number of interesting designs (I was most intrigued by the soldier pictured below – his original head was vandalised, which is terrible and not funny, but they replaced it with what was meant to be a temporary head, and it seriously looked like something I could have sculpted.  I mean, really, could they not find a single artist or sculptor to do something decent?  I believe the hilarious head has finally been replaced with something suitably dignified and solemn).  This display included some information on the Royal Artillery Memorial that sits directly opposite the Arch (it can be seen at the bottom of this post).

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The Great War theme carried on to the gallery below, which had an excellent collection of postcards produced by different countries in the War; Germany took the glorification of soldiers’ deaths to an art form…looking at the postcards, you could really see how they were setting themselves up for the dark path they’d go down in the decades to come, as they clearly portrayed how wronged Germany felt by the rest of Europe, and how they saw themselves as martyrs.

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Speaking of martyrs, there was also a small section dedicated to the ever-present Edith Cavell (I’ve encountered exhibits about her in Belgium, Norwich, and the London Hospital Museum, not to mention her statue next to the National Portrait Gallery), and how her death spurred on the British war effort and various other war related bits and pieces, including an excellent death mask of General Haig.

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Finally, we made our way down to the first floor gallery on the history of the Wellington Arch itself (there’s nothing on the second floor).  Initially, the Arch was meant to serve as part of a grand entrance to Buckingham Palace, but that ultimately wasn’t deemed practical, so it was erected at Hyde Park Corner instead, and originally did not have a statue on top.  However, it was decided that Wellington should have a memorial to match Nelson’s Column (Wellington was still alive at the time, and played a role in spurring things along).  So, they plopped a huge equestrian statue of Wellington on top the Arch (which is very near Apsley House, Wellington’s home, which we did not have a chance to visit that day because it was already quite late in the afternoon), which totally dwarfed the Arch; basically, everyone but Wellington hated it, but because ol’ Arthur threw a temper tantrum and threatened to resign all his posts when they tried to take it down, it remained in place until well after his death.

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It doesn’t end there, as the Arch had to be moved in the 1880s, since (horse-drawn) traffic in the area was becoming a real problem.  As the Duke was long dead at this point, his statue was finally removed and given a new home in Aldershot, and the current statue that tops the Arch was commissioned – called Triumph, it’s of a four-horse carriage.  Anyway, in addition to all this history, the room contained some of the casts of Triumph; the boy head was especially creepy.

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The Arch also used to serve as Britain’s smallest police station, to keep tabs on nearby Hyde Park, and even had a resident cat, called Snook, living inside it, as well as up to 8 officers at any given time.  This was all surprisingly interesting, and it’s always nice to get a new perspective on a London landmark (I suppose literally, since we got to see the inside).  I don’t know if I would have wanted to pay 4 quid for this, as I am pretty cheap, but I did really enjoy it, and I’m glad I finally got to see the top of the Arch.  Now I just need to visit Apsley House before my membership expires!  3/5.

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