Sunday 6 December 2020

The Streets of Old Westminster: Apsley House and Hyde Park - Military London Past and Present

A visitor to London, exploring he City of Westminster, and having visited Green Park, can leave the park by the north-east gate, and turn left onto the south side of Piccadilly. A short walk, passing the RAF Bomber Command Memorial on the left, brings us to Hyde Park Corner, today a confusing "spaghetti junction" of roads and underpasses. In the middle of a traffic island sits the Wellington Arch, designed by Decimus Burton in the 1820s to commemorate the Duke's victory over Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo. There is a small exhibition space inside the arch, now managed by English Heritage, so it is sometimes possible to go inside.

Wellington Arch. Photo: Carlos Delgado (CC-BY-SA).

The Duke of Wellington himself took up residence in Apsley House, just to the north of the arch, in 1817, two years after the battle, as he planned a political career. Originally built in red brick, in the 1770s, to a design by Robert Adam, it was the Duke who added the facade of Portland stone (many London buildings, which appear to be of stone, are actually built of brick, with a similar stone facade. Apsley House, like Spencer House, is an early example of an aristocratic town house, built in the closing decades of the 18th Century, when the "London Social Season" was coming in to vogue. 

Apsley House. Photo: Viosan (licensed under GNU). 

Behind Apsley House is the Queen Elizabeth Gate, leading in to Hyde Park, the third and largest of the royal parks situated in close proximity to one another (the others being Saint James's Park and Green Park). Following the path to the north, known as Broad Walk, one passes a colossal statue of Achilles, on the right, also intended as a tribute to the Duke of Wellington and his victory. Designed by Richard Westmacott, it was inaugurated in 1822. As the first recorded example of a nude public statue in London, it attracted a good deal of public comment.

Statue of Achilles. Photo: Andrew Dunn (licensed under CCA).

George Cruikshank's cartoon of the unveiling of the statue (image is in the Public Domain). 

Beyond Achilles is a more stark and modern memorial, to those killed in the terrorist atrocities in London on 7th July, 2005, a series of events that I remember well (my then girlfriend was close to the Russell Square bomb, shaken, though unhurt, but she was terrified that I might have gone to the British Library, and got caught up in the King's Cross bomb - in fact, I was at home, working on my biography of Sir John Lubbock). 

The 7/7 Memorial sits on, or close to, the remains of a much earlier piece of London's military history. In 1642, as battle-lines were being drawn up between King Charles I and Parliament, the City of London declared for Parliament. The City's Militia, or "Trained Bands," which would, in time, become the backbone of the Parliamentary Infantry, now joined with thousands of Londoners to build an enormous earthwork, to defend not only "The City," but also the "West End," Lambeth, Southwark, and the docklands to the east.

London's Civil War defences, as sketched by George Vertue in 1738 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Roque Map (1746) showing the line of the Civil War earthworks running parallel to "Tyburn Lane" (now Park Lane).

One corner of this earthwork must lie beneath Hyde Park, and run parallel to Park Lane (to our right). The management of the Royal Parks are convinced that its outline can be traced in the humps and bumps that are visible today, but other historians are sceptical. There has been a great deal of landscaping in the past two hundred and fifty years, and a geophysical survey (and, perhaps, excavation) would be necessary to distinguish, with any certainty, the earth moved in the 17th Century from that move in the 18th or the 19th. There can be little doubt, however, that the earthwork is there to be found, and, with it, a control point on the road leading from London to Oxford (today's Oxford Street and Bayswater Road), a likely entry point for Royalist spies.

Possible earthwork, to the right of the 7/7 Memorial (photo:

Hyde Park, as we see it today, was laid out in the 1720s, by Charles Bridgeman, working for George I. Its central water-feature, The Serpentine, was created by damming the Westbourne River. What had previously been a haunt of highwaymen, preying on travellers along the Oxford Road, and a duelling place for offended aristocrats, became a leisure ground for fashionable ladies. In 1851, the park hosted the Great Exhibition, with its Crystal Palace.

Hyde Park from the air. Photo: Ben Leto (licensed under CCA).

The Crystal Palace (image is in the Public Domain).

The Serpentine/ Photo: Jamie101 (licensed under CCA).

Hyde Park, by Camille Pissarro. Tokyo Fuji Art Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

"Lady of Fashion of the 20th Century," by Claude Allin Shepperson, 1914 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Military are still present, however. Gun salutes are fired from the park on State occasions, by the Royal Horse Artillery, and, as a sign of changing times, when I last witnessed this ceremony, the commanding officer was, for the first time, a woman. A barracks overlooks the park, and cavalry horses are still exercised along the "rides." What was once the western periphery of the metropolis now sits close to its centre.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.   

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