Before we dive into today’s journey there’s just time for a quick update on overall progress to date. As you can see below, we’re about three quarters of the way there now with only a relatively small section north of the river still to cover.
Ok back to the programme. Today’s walk starts out from Green Park tube station from where we head west through the eponymous park to Hyde Park Corner. We then venture further west and finish off the area between Grosvenor Place and Belgrave Square before circling round Buckingham Palace and flirting with Victoria (so to speak).
The 40 acres of Green Park provide a link between St James’s Park and Hyde Park.
The park was first enclosed by Charles II in 1668, stocked with deer and provided with a ranger’s house. It was known as Upper St James’s Park but by 1746 it was called The Green Park. The park now has no buildings and virtually no other man-made structures within it but it once contained lodges, a library, an ice house and two vast ‘temples’ called the Temple of Peace and the Temple of Concord. Ironically, the Temple of Peace, erected to mark the end of the War of Austrian Succession, exploded during a firework display in 1749 and in 1814 the Temple of Concord, erected to mark 100 years of the Hanoverian Dynasty, was destroyed in a similar way during the Prince Regent’s gala.
It was the beginning of November when I walked through the north side of the park and the trees were just about hanging on to their autumnal glories.
Just before the western apex of the park you reach the Bomber Command Memorial, dedicated to the 55,573 airmen who lost their lives during the Second World War. The Memorial, which was unveiled in 2012, was designed by architect Liam O’Connor and built using Portland stone. Within the memorial are the bronze sculptures of a Bomber Command aircrew and the design for the roof incorporates sections of aluminium recovered from a Handley Page Halifax III bomber shot down over Belgium on the night of 12 May 1944, in which eight crew were killed.
Beyond the memorial we cross over Duke of Wellington Place to enter the island in the middle of the Hyde Park Corner roundabout. This is all about the celebration and commemoration of Britain’s (and the Commonwealth’s) military past with the D of W taking centre stage. Proceeding anti-clockwise we pass the New Zealand war memorial and arrive at the Machine Gun Corps Memorial. The oddly fey nude statue of David which tops the marble plinth is by Francis Derwent Wood (1871 – 1926).
In the background there you can see Apsley House which houses the Wellington Museum, having been home to the man himself from 1817 (it had been designed and built by Robert Adam in the 1770’s). As luck would have it the museum had switched to Winter opening hours the day before this walk took place and so was closed on weekdays – otherwise I would have felt obligated to visit and report. Instead I turned south past Edgar Boehm’s equestrian statue of the Duke and parted with a fiver to ascend the Wellington Arch.
Turned out this wasn’t such a bad move as I had the place to myself. There’s not a lot to detain you but the small exhibitions on the history of the arch itself and on the Battle of Waterloo are both illuminating and well done and the external viewing gallery affords a couple of interesting perspectives (though not of the Buckingham Palace grounds). Like Marble Arch, the Wellington Arch was conceived to commemorate victory in the Napoleonic wars. It was also designed to be a grand entrance to Central London from the west and was originally sited, about 100 yards away from its present location, immediately opposite Apsley Gate (see last post). Like the Gate the Arch was commissioned in 1824 and was designed by the then 24 year-old Decimus Burton. Burton originally intended the Arch to be crowned with a sculpture of a quadriga (chariot drawn by four horses) but, because the rebuilding of Buckingham Palace ran hugely over budget (see further down), the Treasury declined to fund this and most of the other proposed decoration. In the 1830’s a committee formed to determine the nature and scope of a national memorial to the Duke of Wellington came up with the idea of sticking a giant equestrian statue of the Duke on top of the Green Park Arch (as it was then called). The chosen sculptor was Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1777-1862) and the work was erected in 1846, supposedly for a trial period. It was immediately greeted with derision being totally disproportionate in size. The Government demanded its removal but had to back down when the Duke himself objected.
The statue was finally got rid of in 1883 when the Arch was moved to its new site as part of a road development scheme. It was relocated to a new pedestal near the Garrison Church at Aldershot and the Arch was once again topless. However, in 1891 the sculptor Adrian Jones (1845–1938) exhibited a magnificent plaster work of (you’ve guessed it) a quadriga and The Prince of Wales suggested that it would make a suitable adornment for the rebuilt Wellington Arch. Initially no funds were available, but eventually a banker, Sir Herbert Stern, made an anonymous donation of about £20,000, and the final bronze version was erected on top of the arch in January 1912.
From the early twentieth century until the late 1950’s the inside of the arch was used as a police station (arguably the smallest in London) and it 2001 after major repairs and refurbishment English Heritage opened it to, if today was anything to go by, a largely indifferent public.
And so to those views from the top…
As you can see in the slides above if we resume our anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the island next up, on the west side, is the Royal Artillery Memorial , designed by Charles Jagger and Lionel Pearson, and featuring a giant sculpture of a BL 9.2-inch Mk I howitzer upon a large plinth of Portland stone. Behind this is the Lanesborough Hotel, reputedly the most expensive in London. Lanesborough House was built in 1726 and converted into a hospital, St George’s, in 1733. Almost a hundred years later it was demolished to make way for a new 350-bed facility designed by architect William Wilkins. The new hospital was operational by 1844, serving continuously as a hospital until transferred to Tooting, south London in the 1970s. In 1980 the Duke of Westminster took up an option to buy the then vacant building for £6,000 (its value in the nineteenth century).
It was refurbished and re-opened as a hotel in 1991 and is currently managed by the Oetker Collection.
Completing the circuit is the Australian war memorial beyond which you can see the massive redevelopment taking place next to the Lanesborough. It’s from here that scores of Eastern European construction workers flock into the island to eat their lunch.
And so we eventually escape from the island via the underpass that emerges on Grosvenor Place and swing west round Grosvenor Crescent back towards Belgrave Square. First embassy of the day is Belgium’s then on the corner with Halkin Street (but officially known as 49 Belgrave Square) is the Argentinian, occupying the Grade-II listed Herbert House, built for Sidney Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Lea in 1851.
Further down Halkin Street is the Caledonian Club, a private members’ club founded in 1891 that styles itself as a little bit of Scotland in the heart of London. Coincidentally, about a week after this walk I received an invite to a function here (which I was unable to attend).
We return to Grosvenor Place and turn south. There are some fine facades along here but many are in a state of severe disrepair.
At no.17 which is the Embassy of the Republic of Ireland we turn right down Chapel Street but only as far as Headfort Place which takes us north again back to Halkin Street.
From here Montrose Place and Chapel Street get us back to the Irish Embassy and the next turn off west from Grosvenor Place is Chester Street. From here we take Groom Place back to Chapel Street then head west past the south-eastern corner of Belgrave Square into Upper Belgrave Street. We swing round the corner, on which stands the Embassy of the Ivory Coast, into Chester Street once more then turn right onto Wilton Mews. Next left is Little Chester Street then up Chester Mews passing the shell of a pub, the Talbot, I had occasion to frequent many years ago.
We retrace our steps on Chester Street before taking a further turn south on Grosvenor Place. No. 33 which was once the HQ of Associated Electrical Industries is undergoing reconstruction along with its neighbours but you can still just about view the grotesques created by Maurice Lambert (1901-1964) (who was apprentice to Francis Derwent Wood and assisted with the Machine Gun Corps Memorial).
We next make a right turn onto Wilton Street where they haven’t yet got (or should I say gotten) over Halloween and there is the most meta of all of London’s blue plaques in that it commemorates the politician and reformer William Ewart (1798 – 1869) who was the person who first came up with the idea of the Blue Plaque (in 1863).
At the end of Wilton Street we turn briefly north on Upper Belgrave Street before continuing west along Eaton Place. No.15 was the home of Scots-Irish physicist and engineer William Thomson (a.k.a Lord Kelvin) (1824 – 1907) after whom the temperature scale that takes absolute zero as its lowest point is named (that’s the Kelvin scale not the Thomson scale just to be clear). But Eaton Place is probably more famous as the home (at no.165) of the Bellamy family and their servants in the seventies’ TV series “Upstairs Downstairs”. (Somewhat less famous is the BBC’s 21st century remake that unsuccessfully attempted to compete with Downton Abbey).
At the end of the first section of Eaton Place we turn north up Belgrave Place, past Belgrave Mews South and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway then proceed anti-clockwise round Belgrave Square passing two further embassies, those of Serbia and Bahrain, on our right.
On our left, outside the south-east corner of the garden, is a statue of our old friend Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) the Venezuelan military and political leader who not only played a leading role in the foundation of his own country but was also key to the liberation from the Spanish of Bolivia (which takes its name from him of course), Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama. The north-east corner also has a statue, of Bolivar’s contemporary Jose de San Martin (1778-1850) who was similarly crucial to the successful independence struggles of Argentina, Chile and Peru.
In between the statues, across the road on the eastern side of the square, we have the Italian Cultural Institute and the Turkish Embassy which is not only covered in scaffolding but the only Embassy encountered to date (apart from the Saudi one) that has an armed guard outside.
The only embassy on the north side of Belgrave Square is the one belonging to Syria at no.8 and which has been closed since the Ambassador was expelled in 2012.
Leaving the square and heading north round Wilton Crescent we pass between the Romanian Cultural Institute at No.1 and a statue of Robert Grosvenor, 1st Marquess of Westminster (1767–1845) which was only erected in 1998. Outside of his political life, he was both a Tory and a Whig MP, Grosvenor was best known for his art collection which included four Rubens’ and Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy, for which he paid £100, and as a breeder of racehorses. The finest horse produced by his stud was Touchstone who won 16 of the 21 races he entered and went on to sire 323 winners of over 700 races.
Wilton Crescent is home to the Luxembourg Embassy and once we’ve passed that we veer off down Wilton Row to arrive at today’s pub of the day, The Grenadier. Located in what is essentially another mews, the Grenadier was originally built in 1720 as the officers’ mess for the senior infantry regiment of the British army, the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards. It was opened to the public in 1818 as The Guardsman and was subsequently renamed in honour of the Grenadier Guards’ actions in the Battle of Waterloo. Past patrons have included the Duke of Wellington, King George IV and, more recently, Madonna. It is also said to be haunted by the ghost of a subaltern who was beaten to death for cheating at cards. The beer’s expensive but I did have a very good fish finger sandwich.
After leaving the pub we wend our way round the appropriately named Old Barrack Yard and find ourselves back on Knightsbridge. Turning east we pass by the Libyan Embassy, which appears to be fully operational still, and the Wellesley Hotel which occupies the building that started life as the original Hyde Park Corner tube station, designed by architect Lesley Green, and was later for many years the home of iconic jazz and cabaret venue, Pizza on the Park.
Turning round the corner past the Lanesborough Hotel again we cross from Grosvenor Place onto Duke of Wellington Place and then pass through the Commonwealth Memorial gates and make our way down Constitution Hill.
This “hill”, which wouldn’t even merit that description if it was situated in the heart of the Fens, leads of course to Buckingham Palace. It was George III who first brought Buckingham House (as it was known originally) into the Royal fold when he acquired it in 1761 for his wife Queen Charlotte to use as a family home. On his accession in 1820, George IV decided to transform the house into a palace with the help of architect John Nash. Nash retained the main block but doubled its size by adding a new suite of rooms on the garden side facing west in addition the north and south wings of Buckingham House were demolished and rebuilt with a triumphal arch – the Marble Arch – as the centrepiece of an enlarged courtyard, to commemorate the British victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo. By 1829 the costs had escalated to nearly half a million pounds which cost Nash’s his job, and on the death of George IV in 1830, his younger brother William IV took on Edward Blore to finish the work. William never moved into the Palace. In fact, when the Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire in 1834, he offered the Palace as a new home for Parliament, but the offer was declined. So Queen Victoria was the first sovereign to take up residence in 1837 and a year later she was the first British sovereign to leave from Buckingham Palace for a Coronation. She was responsible for the creation of a fourth wing, which necessitated moving the Marble Arch to the north-east corner of Hyde Park, paid for from the proceeds of the sale of George IV’s Royal Pavilion at Brighton. The present forecourt of the Palace, where Changing the Guard takes place, was formed in 1911, as part of the Victoria Memorial scheme.
Cutting in between the front of the Palace and the Memorial takes us onto Spur Road and then Buckingham Palace Road. Immediately in front of the 19 State Rooms sits the Queen’s Gallery which really only seems to exist to justify its lavish accompanying gift shop (FYI if you want Canalettos you van get them for free at the Wallace Collection).
On the subject of gift shops, if you continue down to the Buckingham Palace Road you find two further bits of evidence for the case that the only reason the monarchy still exists is as a sop to the tourist industry.
Just after the Royal Mews we turn right into Lower Grosvenor Place then continue across Grosvenor Place into Hobart Place. At no.4 is a blue plaque marking this as a residence of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). In his all too brief life Mendelssohn visited England ten times and spent a total of about four months at this address across four or five of those stays. His first impression of London was ambivalent, describing it in 1829 as ‘the grandest and most complicated monster on the face of earth’. Some years later though he admitted “[there is] no question that that smoky nest is my preferred city and will remain so. I feel quite emotional when I think of it.”
Continuing west we turn into Eaton Square and nip into St Peter’s Church. This was originally built between 1824 and 1827 in a neoclassical style designed by Henry Hakehill. That building burnt down, and in 1837 was rebuilt from Hakewill’s drawings by one of his sons. Fire gutted the building again in 1987, the handiwork of an anti-Catholic arsonist who mistook the denomination of the church. The church was rebuilt around the Georgian shell and opened again in 1991 with a modernist interior. As chance would have it, when I visited the renowned violinist, Tamsin Little, was in rehearsal for a concert later that evening.
At this point we needed to head off-piste to visit the facilities at Victoria Station, which, unlike those at every other mainline station I can think of, are free of charge. And with that useful tip I think we’ll wrap it up there for today.