30/08/2012 by noonobservation
There are many advantages to stalking historical figures, rather than the living. Firstly, they have fewer bodyguards (although one shouldn’t underestimate National Trust volunteers, however elderly they may look). Secondly, they are less mobile, thus allowing you to stalk them at your convenience. Thirdly, they are less likely to issue you with a restraining order.
There’s something about Arthur…
My interest in Arthur Wellesley started when I was 14 or 15 while reading Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels. I quickly tired of the depressingly simple, uncouth and low-born hero, and found myself rereading the bits where the Duke of Wellington tells Sharpe off/humiliates Sharpe in a jolly way/rewards Sharpe with a new suicide mission. There was something compelling about the dry brevity of the Duke’s heartless orders that turned my head…
Having no money or car, stalking was at first a distant dream. Instead, I spent my teenage years reading histories of the Peninsular War, biographies of the Great Duke, comparative biographies with Napoleon, watching that terrible Waterloo film with Christopher Plummer and writing essays for pleasure on why Wellington was so very Great.
Since reaching my majority however, I have stalked Wellington with the sort of steadfast thoroughness of which the Duke so approved. Here are my top (UK only) Wellington stalks (in the order I visited them).
1. Apsley House
This was Wellington’s house on Hyde Park Corner, which once had the rather fabulous address of “No.1 London”. The house is filled with fine art, much of which Wellington found in some French carts near Vitoria in 1813. There are also many unpleasantly gaudy gifts from London guilds and foreign governments.
My favourite thing however is the 11ft tall statue of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (for real!), commissioned by Napoleon for Napoleon, and sculpted by the legendary Canova of Venice. When it arrived, Napoleon decided that it was maybe just a little bit unrealistically buff and hid it away in a dark corner of the Louvre. After the war, the Prince Regent bought it off Louis XVIII and gave it to Wellington as a present.
(Just so you all know, my birthday is in March and I would LOVE an 11ft marble effigy of my defeated nemesis.)
2. Stratfield Saye.
M and I were driving back from a wedding one hot July, when we unexpectedly passed a sign for Statfield Saye. We had wondered why all the local pubs were called the Duke of Wellington.
Stratfield Saye was the country estate given to Wellington by a grateful nation in 1817. (Dukes are highly territorial and each male needs at least a county’s worth of land, else they gouge each other to death with their ferocious tusks). His family still lives there today and appear to be using the 1st Duke’s campaign chests to store their DVDs in.
Wellington originally planned to pull down the poky little 20 bedroom 17th Century manor house and build an enormous “Waterloo Palace” to rival Blenheim, but when he found out just how much palaces cost he had to settle for adding a conservatory.
The best bit of Stratfield Saye is definitely Wellington’s funeral carriage. Made from 18 tonnes of melted down French cannon, adorned with captured flags and originally pulled by nine black dray horses, it is one of the world’s most terrifying objects. It proved too heavy for Victorian roads and actually broke Pall Mall, causing Wellington to be uncharacteristically late for his own funeral. Dickens described it thus: “For form of ugliness, horrible combination of colour, hideous motion, and general failure, there was never such a work achieved…” Stumbling upon it unprepared in a dimly-lit barn, M and I nearly fainted with sheer Victorian fright.
Wellington’s favourite horse, Copenhagen, is also buried in the garden (with full military honours). His death was blamed on his fondness for cakes.
I would recommend the guided tour assuming it is still done by an eccentric old duffer.
3. Walmer Castle
During a driving tour of the south coast this summer, T and I found ourselves at Walmer Castle; a gentrified fortification that has been stubbornly resisting the French for some four and a half centuries.
In his golden years, Wellington was made Warden of the Cinque Ports – a position composed of almost no responsibilities and quite a few nice castles. Wellington liked to make living in plush stately homes as uncomfortable as possible and slept on a narrow campaign bed, rising at 6 every day to pace the ramparts. He died in his armchair (even the bed being too comfortable) at Walmer Castle at the age of 83.
There’s a nice copy of Wellington’s death mask (though he is hardly looking his best), and the gift shop stocks an excellent range of Wellington tat (though not as good as Statfield Saye).
4. St Paul’s Cathedral
This is a stalk only for the most dedicated rather than the merely curious, firstly because it costs £16 (for shame, t’is a house of god!) and secondly because the bones of our nation’s heroes are guarded by some of the most officious and unpleasant heritage staff known to man, ready to smite you down at the first sign of a camera.
Most of the cathedral is a dreary yawn-fest, but the crypt is rather nice. Arthur’s coffin is located companionably next to Nelson’s. I spent some precious moments gazing upon it and imagining round shot bounding through the sea of noisy Spanish school children swarming around the plinth.
Time to give Arthur a colour. Here’s how he rates on my Memorability Spectrum (see previous post)…
Hotness: 204 (due to his impressive height, excellent wit and success with the ladies (though like a gentleman, he kept his affairs reasonably discrete (unlike Nelson))).
Eccentricity: 47 (due to his Toryness, support for the aristocratic principle and hard working, clean living efficiency. In fact, he was so square that it’s almost an eccentricity).
Violence: 208 (due to his ability to ruthlessly cull the French military).