Peace riding a chariot

21st September 2001 at 01:00
You don't really notice it from the bus or driving by in a car, says Gillian Thomas, but there is a magnificent arch at Hyde Park Corner

Two million pounds has transformed the world's most famous traffic roundabout, Hyde Park Corner, into an attraction schools will want to add to their options for visits in London. The island's historic centrepiece, the white marble Wellington Arch, is topped by a huge bronze statue of the winged figure of Peace descending onto a horse-drawn chariot. English Heritage opened it to the public in April.

The arch now houses two permanent exhibitions, neatly fitted into rooms over the archway and in one of the legs. The other leg is used as a ventilation shaft for the underpass.

The main exhibition explains the arch's history through photographs, drawings and prints. It was originally conceived in 1825, together with Marble Arch, as a grand entrance to Buckingham Palace to commemorate Britain's victory over Napoleonic France.

Unfortunately the original designs were extensively modified after rows over costs and both subsequently had to be relocated to fit in with road widening schemes.

The lively exhibition includes a video of historic events, a Victorian 'zoetrope' simulation of the arch's construction and a picture puzzle.

Traffic and pollution are covered too. And there are replicas of parts of the statue, whose figures are almost twice life-size.

On the way to the parapet outside, photographs of 18 other famous arches around the world, both ancient and modern, are on display. Outside you get wide views across the swirling traffic, notably into the grounds of Buckingham Palace. And immediately above, the hooves of the four rearing horses look awesomely realistic.

The second exhibition is about London's many other monuments, from the Cenotaph to statues of Florence Nightingale and Nelson Mandela. Explanatory panels cover themes like Images of Power, Arts amp; Science and Reformers amp; Revolutionaries. Leaflets are available covering each of these subjects.

The island is also the home of the Royal Artillery and the Machine Gun Corps memorials erected after the 1914-18 war. These make it an excellent resource for a wide range of topics from town planning to geography. History is of course the main one, particularly the key stage 2 study of Remembrance Sunday. The soldiers depicted on the artillery memorial vividly show the human side of warfare.

While there is plenty of space on the island for school groups, the interior of the arch is inevitably small, so visits need to be booked in advance. A lift, which only carries six people, gives access to the upper floors. The alternative is a narrow winding staircase, so adequate supervision is essential.

ContactWellington Arch, Hyde Park Corner London Tel: 020 7930 2726 Web: www.english-heritage.org.uk discoverywellingtonarchindex.aspSchool groups free. Fully accessible to wheelchair users.

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