Home Tourist – Apsley House

A great bannister to slide down, so long as you don't collide with the statue of Napoleon at the bottom

Apsley House, sometimes call Number 1 London, the home of the Duke of Wellington, sits at the centre of an enormous traffic roundabout at Hyde Park Corner, so while in one direction it is possible to look out on the park from the windows of the first floor, in all directions you see the tops of buses and hear the constant roar of traffic.

I’ve often looked at the outside of the building from the  top deck of a bus, or while waiting at the traffic lights in my car.  It’s been on that vague list of things to visit at some time.  Even when I spent 2 years working in one of the buildings at the near end of Knightsbridge, I generally avoided having to walk across Hyde Park Corner towards Piccadilly because of the nuisance of going up and down through the multiple underpasses necessary to get from one side to the other, and I never visited Apsley House.

But this weekend, in the continuing spirit of checking out places that I’ve never been, but should have, a friend and I went to visit.  It’s looked after by English Heritage and at the moment is only open at the weekends, and we were there as the doors were flung open for the small queue.

It was one of those mornings when the number of things I learnt made me feel that I’d been very ignorant before.  For a start, I didn’t know that there was such an extraordinary collection of art there.  The first Duke was evidently a collector, and was helped along by some significant paintings ‘liberated’ from the Spanish court during the Peninsular Wars.  Caravaggio, Lawrence, Van Dyck, Valazquez and many others are all there, many of them displayed in a mirrored gallery modelled on the hall of mirrors in Versailles; no shortage of ambition there, then.

Many of the plated, gilt and awards given to Wellington are also on display; the recorded guide reports the Duchess’s proud claim that they were all given freely, with no corruption to the Duke in recognition of his service by various crowned heads of Europe.

Examining the portrait of William IV, we both started wondering who were the other Williams before.  Don’t worry, but the time we got back to examine the Kings and Queens of England T-towel in the shop we’d worked out I and III, and had assumed, correctly, that II came soon after the Conqueror.  Other important questions such as when were Marble Arch and the Wellington Arch erected, were answered by the knowledgeable young woman in an English Heritage fleece jacket  who was on a regular circuit of the State rooms in the opposite direction to us.  Practically every time she approached K had a question for her, and she always came up trumps, although I did begin to wonder if she might start to avoid us.

Parts of the house are still used by the present Duke and his family (another point of earlier ignorance was that there was a current Duke of Wellington), and on the main entrance there is a plaque with an arrow pointing towards the door to the private residence, somewhat prosaically identified as simply a number in Piccadilly.

I still think it must be a very noisy place to live.

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