This is a big year for the UK. The Magna Carta is celebrating its 800th anniversary, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is turning 150, and it’s been 200 years since the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. There are celebrations and commemorations happening across the country, and some of them are taking place surprisingly close to home. The ones at Apsley House and Wellington Arch, for example.
Located right on Hyde Park Corner in central London, these twin landmarks are the former residence of the Duke of Wellington and the arch commemorating his victory at Waterloo. They both reopened on Saturday after being closed all winter, with new exhibitions launching just in time for the final run-up to the June 18th anniversary of the battle.
I’ve passed by Apsley House a million times without really noticing it. Surrounded by a giant roundabout and dwarfed by the enormity of Hyde Park, its somewhat subtle facade struggles to stand out from all the distractions. But now that I’m inside, I start to understand why this place deserves its historic address, “Number One, London”. It’s lavish.
It’s also one of the only homes of its kind to have survived the 20th century, when many others were sold off and redeveloped.
Apsley House is not only structurally intact, but also retains its impressive collection of art. The Waterloo Gallery alone has many paintings from the Spanish royal collection, including works by Goya, Velazquez, and Ribera. The oldest surviving English grand piano is here, too.
As I make my way past Canova’s larger-than-life marble sculpture of Napoleon and famous works like David Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Despatch, my multimedia guide tells me about the Duke of Wellington’s annual Waterloo Banquets, held each year on the date of the victory. To commemorate the 200th anniversary, the Waterloo Gallery’s grand table is now laid out as it was when the banquets were held.
But to really understand how he achieved his victory, I head across the street to Wellington Arch. The triumphal monument in the center of the Hyde Park Corner roundabout is another landmark I’ve walked by many times without realizing I could go inside.
Up three floors is a small museum dedicated to the Battle of Waterloo. From Wellington’s sword and handwritten notes to paintings and multimedia displays, the battle between Napoleon and the Allies is mapped out and analyzed in detail. The museum even has the original Wellington Boots—the inspiration for today’s wellies—on display.
At the top, doors open onto a terrace with views of the Queen’s garden at Buckingham Palace and the war memorials dotted around the arch in the middle of the roundabout. Across the street, Apsley House sits peacefully as the cars and buses drive past.
Which is fitting, because the defeat of Napoleon ushered in an unprecedented period of peace in Europe much like the one we’re enjoying after a rather tumultuous 20th century. Come June there will be bigger, grander commemorations of the duke and his victory at Waterloo, but now that Apsley House and Wellington Arch are open for the year, they’re a great place to start the celebrations.