Even today, I get a little mixed up between Marble Arch and Wellington Arch, a bit like people who have difficulty with their left from their right. I know which is which to look at, but I run into problems remembering at which corners of Hyde Park they are sited. And other related details. For example, when visiting Wellington Arch recently, I wondered what had happened to the “smallest police station in London”. This was actually in Marble Arch. Trawling around touristy photo pages on the web reveals that many think that Wellington Arch is Marble Arch with some clearly under the impression that there is only one – known as Marble Arch – whether it be the correct one or Wellington Arch.
So at the risk of patronising our better-informed readers, here goes. Marble Arch is the one without the decoration on top and is sited on the north-east corner of Hyde Park, that is to say Speaker’s Corner, which is near the junction of Oxford Street and Edgware Road. Wellington Arch, with the angelic charioteer statue on top is on the south-east corner of Hyde Park, that is to say Hyde Park Corner, where Knightsbridge meets Piccadilly at the corner of Green Park.
These structures, along with Euston Arch, were erected almost contemporaneously in the 1830s. Late Georgian Britain had emerged as the dominant power in the world in trade, industry and arms and was feeling proud and confident. This was particularly reflected in art and architecture, manifesting itself in neo-Classical styles, grandees having bizarre statues of themselves dressed as imperial Roman generals, and also these triumphal arches.
Euston Arch, sited in front of the old Euston station when it was first built in 1837, is perhaps appropriately more industrial and chunky-looking than its Hyde Park counterparts. There it stood until the early 1960s when it fell victim to modernism during the rebuilding of the station in the modern international style. The fate of the arch boiled down to a choice between demolition at a cost of £12,000 or re-siting at a cost of £190,000. The preservation option was fiercely fought for by the Victorian Society, led by Sir John Betjeman and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, but to no avail. Nobody, including the government and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan himself, was prepared to fund the latter option, and lacking a preservation order, the arch came down.
The good news is that most of the stone pieces of the arch were rediscovered in the 1990s dumped in the River Lea and a project to re-erect it at Euston, led by Dan Cruickshank, Michael Palin and others, is progressing well. This worthy initiative is run by the Euston Arch Trust, who have an excellent and newsy web site.
Update: 14 April 2011
Some more arches for you. Two, it can be argued, are really gates. But both Wellington Arch and Marble Arch once served as gates. So, they are mostly interchangeable. First, York House Gate on the Embankment. This is the oldest in our series so far, dating from 1626, built in the Italianate style and placed on the bank of the Thames by George Villers, 1st Duke of Buckingham in front of his London mansion, York House. Note that Villiers Street is close by. The stairs in front of this arch were a common feature the entire length of the London Thames before embankment, yet the names of many of them live on. Once Bazalgette embanked the river in the 1860s, this gate became somewhat stranded, some 150 yards from the edge.
Next we have a simple memorial arch at Guy’s Hospital to remember the doctors and staff who lost their lives in the two world wars.
Finally (for now), we have Temple Bar in Paternoster Square near St. Paul’s Cathedral. You can read all about the story of Temple Bar here.