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18 April 2016

A hundred and fifty feet above Hyde Park is a scene of glory and bloodlust

An email arrives from my contact at English Heritage. Would I like to go up to the top of the Wellington Memorial arch on Thursday? Of course I would.

By Nicholas Lezard

An email arrives from my contact at English Heritage. Would I like to go up to the top of the Wellington Memorial arch on Thursday? Oh, if I had a fiver for every time I’ve been asked that question . . . well, I’d now have a fiver.

The idea certainly appeals. As Edward Lear’s duck in “The Duck and the Kangaroo” says, “My life is a bore in this nasty pond,/And I long to go out in the world beyond!” If the journey involved is, across flat ground, a mere 1.7 miles from the Hovel, the journey from the bottom to the top of the arch is over 150 feet, and has the added, and considerable, attraction of being a journey that very few people on Earth have ever made.

You do know which arch I mean, don’t you? It’s the one at Hyde Park Corner in London, right in the interstice between Hyde and Green Parks, and it shows a quadriga – that’s a four-horse chariot to you, matey – bristling with cannon, swords, spiky shields and other martial knick-knacks, being driven by a crazed nude adolescent, like a boy racer with his first stolen car, and descended on by a bloody enormous angel – the Angel of Peace, as it turns out.

That was good to learn: until today I thought it wasn’t a peaceful angel at all. I thought that what with it being called the Wellington Arch (or Memorial), it would have been more of a celebration of military prowess than its opposite. Well, I suppose it sort of has its cake and eats it, being both a symbol of war and a rebuke to it at the same time.

Anyway, on a leaden, freezing April day, having been advised to bring along a pair of sturdy shoes and a head for heights, I am handed a high-vis jacket and hard hat, and as we wait for the friend I’ve invited along as she makes her way from the wrong arch (“I’m standing right underneath it,” I say, exasperatedly, with a dawning sense of what has happened. “What shape is it?” “Archy!”) – I contemplate the climb to the top.

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It is interesting that as one gets older, one’s acrophobia, or fear of heights, increases. This is not to be confused with vertigo, though it often is, even more than the way Marble Arch and the Wellington Arch are. Vertigo is the sensation an acrophobe feels when standing on anything higher than a footstool. And, having recently toppled from a chair when trying – sober, as you ask – to fix a curtain, I have learned that my fear is by no means irrational. For a few seconds, as we start climbing the scaffolding, I consider, to the exclusion of every other thought, the possibility of climbing back down. We are only six feet up and I am already beginning to worry that my trousers are too pale a shade of brown. Never mind.

In the end, we all make it up without incident. And it is fascinating. The truly humbling thing is that the sculpture atop the arch is packed full of detail that no one on the ground can ever see. At the centre of the shaft on which the straining horses pull (and they are magnificent; the sculptor, Adrian Jones, entered the cavalry as a vet, so he knew his horses) is a superbly sculpted ram’s head – a visual pun on Ares, the ancient Greek god of war. Who’s seen it? Very few indeed. You could probably hand out a surviving copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio to everyone who’s been up there and still have most of them left.

It’s the depth of detail that is humbling. The veins stand out from the rearing horses’ limbs. The quadriga driver’s smile is insane with bloodlust. The wheels are finished in perfect detail right down to where they meet the plinth. Jones didn’t care that no one, virtually, was going to notice or care about the fine craftsmanship. He was the kind of person, it’s clear, who thought that if a work of art was to be any good, it was going to have to be good all the way down.

And the angel’s solid brass wings move in the wind. How could they not? They’re wings – huge, great sails, the length of a full-size snooker table. They are meant to catch the wind, that’s the point of wings. And Jones, who knew about animals, wasn’t going to skimp on the minutiae. And so, when it’s windy, these wings move, and the statue as a whole is designed to bear and accommodate the torsion.

And now I can say that I have sat on the horses that pull the chariot of the god of war. I have stroked their flanks. I have looked into an angel’s eyes. And when I pushed gently on her wings, I made them move. I have made an angel’s wings move. 

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This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster