Sunday 12 March 2017

Walking Waterloo (Off Topic #25)

As part of my ongoing special birthday celebrations my daughter paid for me to spend last weekend staying in Hougoumont on the Waterloo battlefield. The farm has recently been renovated and the Landmark Trust has created a self-catering apartment on the top two floors of what was once the gardener’s cottage.

My companions on the trip were Andy and our respective wives and we arrived in the dark after a fairly gruelling drive from Scotland. I immediately perked up however on parking the car by the famous south gate of Hougoumont and taking in the atmosphere. We were the only people there (the caretaker was on holiday) which added to the magic as I set about exploring the courtyard by torchlight.

All I can say is I had a fantastic time and Andy and I managed to complete a short circular tour of the battlefield next day taking in La Haye Sainte and La Belle Alliance. I took quite a few photos and here is a selection of the most interesting ones.

Me outside the south gate of Hougoumont. This is the door used to get to the self-catering accommodation in the apartment above in what was the gardener's cottage.
The same place on a slightly busier day.

The living room in the Landmark Trust apartment. The standard of accommodation was surprisingly good although in common with all Landmark Trust properties there was no TV or Wi-Fi
The view from our bedroom window in the gardener's cottage looking more or less southeast towards the French lines. You can almost hear the drummers beating the pas-de-charge.
The view from the first floor (kitchen) looking down on the courtyard of Hougoumont. The white building on the right is the chapel.
The gardener's cottage from the courtyard. The guest accommodation covers the whole top floor and attic.
The north gate from the courtyard. The famous gate where the French managed to break in briefly before the gates were heroically shut and the intruders wiped out by the garrison.
The monument to the British defenders of Hougoumont.
This is the chapel - the only remaining part of the Chateau that must have dwarfed the courtyard before its destruction on 18 June. What surprised me the most about Hougoumont is how small an area it actually occupied.
The memorial to the Guards on the chapel wall.
This is a view to the south of Hougoumont looking from the direction of the allied lines. It struck me just how isolated the garrison was from the rest of the army and they must have really felt it when the place was surrounded by smoke, noise and the French.
A few hundred yards to the northeast of Hougoumont there is a foot path that leads towards the Lion's Mound and the visitor's centre. This path follows the crest of the ridge marking the front of the allied line. To my companions this was just a muddy field but to me this was an amazing place to be - the same ground walked on by men like Mercer and Maitland, the ground that 1,000's of cuirassiers rode over, the ground that the Imperial Guard attacked but failed to take.
To the left of the path the reverse slope of the ridge falls away quite steeply (it doesn't really show up in a photo) and would have provided relative safety to troops deployed behind it. It must have been a huge shock to the front ranks of French cuirassiers to have crested the ridge and seen the allied squares waiting on this ground.
A boyhood dream come true - Mercer's battery once stood here, I first read of his exploits in 1970!
A plaque dedecated to Mercer's troop of the RHA.

The Lion's Mound - a controversial monument built in 1826 for the Prince of Orange. The Duke of Wellington visiting in 1828 is said to have exclaimed "They have altered my field of battle!". Well, I'm with the Duke on this as its construction wiped out the sunken lane and reduced the height of the ridge.
The recently built visitor's centre is excellent and a must on any visit. It has been cleverly constructed under ground and blends sympathetically into the landscape - unlike the Lion's Mound.
There are some great life size mannequins displaying Napoleonic uniforms - really useful for finding out what some of those odd accoutrements are that are modelled on wargame figures.
Next to the visitor's centre is the Panorama displaying a 360 degree painting of the battle completed in 1911. I've seen some of the images from this painting before but it was quite something to be able to look at the whole thing. This section shows Marshal Ney I think.
A view of La Haye Sainte from the top of the Lion's Mound (yes I did climb all the way up the bloody thing but had to stop several times and pretend to be enjoying the view -  I did wonder if Belgian paramedics refuse to attend for tourists having heart attacks at the top of the 225 steps).
The path in this picture marks the crest of the ridge we'd just walked on viewed from the mound (looking towards Braine L' Alleud). The ground to the left is where the French cavalry and later the Imperial Guard would have advanced.
This is La Haye Sainte from ground level (coming down 225 steps is easier than going up them). Interesting to see how it is in quite a dip when viewed from the allied lines.
At this point Andy and I continued on our circular walk by ourselves whilst the ladies retired to Hougoumont to prepare dinner for us. This picture shows the ground to the east of La Haye Sainte looking towards the French lines. This is the ground that D'Erlon advanced over and there is a substantial dip in the middle (again the photo does not really show it). This would have been hard going on muddy ground. This is also where the Scot's Grey's made their charge.
La Haye Sainte looking down the road (now very busy) in the direction of La Belle Alliance.
The gate of La Haye Sainte - looks just like my Airfix model.
Andy and I pressed on towards La Belle Alliance but it was raining quite hard and starting to get dark by the time we got there. It looked to me as if the place was empty although it had clearly been a restaurant quite recently. Nice business venture for someone?
We headed back across the battlefield towards Hougoumont (and dinner) but this time on the French side of the lines. From this perspective the land looks deceptively flat and I could see how the French might have thought Wellington's position was weak.
This is a close up of the the field on one side of the track. The mud is very gloopy and this combined with the gradient up towards the allied line must have been a serious problem for the attacking French. No wonder no flanking moves were attempted on 18 June.
Having sampled just a bit too much red wine apres-battle tour Andy and I decided to set out in the dark to look at a monument in the grounds of Hougoumont. We scaled the garden wall like brave grenadiers and set off through the field however we weren't expecting to see the Lion's Mound lit up like some sort of giant spaceship. It was so impressive we had to go back and get the ladies, even they were a bit impressed although they thought we were stupid scaling the wall rather than just opening the gate (we thought it was locked).
Having forced everyone to spend a day walking Waterloo it was only right that we spent the next day in Brussels - something Napoleon never managed to achieve.

If any of you want to suggest to your own daughter that they pay for a similar trip then full details can be found on the Landmark Trust website – click here.