2: Park Lane traffic system

[note: the 2009 redevelopment of Marble Arch has erased much of the evidence of the following account.] The Park Lane traffic system runs from Marble Arch in the north along Park Lane to Hyde Park Corner in the south. The need to record such a feature now is important here because Hyde Park Corner has already been recently renovated and plans have been submitted for major redevlopment of Marble Arch which will erase many of the elements that I find intriguing.

The conscious layer of 20th century commemoration along Park Lane is evident, from the recent memorial to animals lost in war at the north end, to the Cavalry Memorial (1920-24) further south (moved westwards into the park in 1961 to make way for the widened road) and on to Hyde Park Corner itself with the Artillery Memorial by Charles Jagger (1921-5) and the Machine-Gunners’ Memorial (1925).

However, in the late 1950s, the growth of car traffic and completion of the most pressing post-war reconstruction meant focus was turned towards adapting the area for future demands. Accordingly, the London County Council approved a scheme for widening Park Lane and installing two large gyratory systems at either end. Given the timing (1958-62), and considering my previous comments on the nexus of memorialising relating to the First World War at that particular time, it is my suggestion that the entire system became imbued with a subconscious memory-projection of the Western Front.

As with the previous entries on Robin Hood Gardens, I will first present comments by architectural critics on the road scheme to give a flavour of how it came to be perceived (and it should be kept in mind that this scheme had the full backing of a team of highly trained and experienced traffic engineers and town planners whose intentions were explicit and conformed to accepted practice).

At Marble Arch, ‘the little curving cross street, the old Tyburn Way where the triangular gallows stood, is a parking place for buses, since its incorporation in the rather awkward roundabout traffic plan led, not to freedom and Oxford Street, but to hopeless congestion.’

marble arch map

‘The lack of polish (marble works poorly in London) and [Marble Arch's] miserable setting in the middle of a poorly designed traffic roundabout, make it look a little wan.’

‘Marble Arch’s present formal and forlorn setting dates from the road widening of 1961-62.’

‘In the pedestrian underworld around the island are mural mosaics by William Mitchell, 1962.’

Hyde Park Corner was: ‘always regarded as the most important entrance to London from the West. It is characteristically English that this important place should be called merely a Corner – perhaps it was this name that allowed the traffic engineers of the 1950s to rape it so shamelessly.

‘Apsley House – the Duke of Wellington’s former home with the singular address ‘No 1, London’ – is now marooned in the midst of the Hyde Park Corner traffic intersection, and the former neo-classical ensemble has been all but destroyed. In the 1960s the adjoining buildings were demolished for road widening.’

apsley house

‘Since the reconstruction of Hyde Park Corner as one of the biggest traffic roundabouts in Europe in the late 1950s, the setting of Constitution Arch has been less than satisfactory.’ [This has been improved in recent years with pedestrian crossings increasing access to it].

Ironically, half-way along Park Lane is the ‘Joy of Life’ fountain, installed in 1963 to a design by TB Huxley Jones, after a competition in 1958. By installing it, it is as if an effort was made to counter-balance the layer of subconscious, and in some ways morbid, memorialising that I will try to show in coming entries, and that is consciously evident in Jagger’s Artillery memorial (below).

Artillery Memorial
Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park Corner, Charles Jagger (1921-25)

A series of double images helps to suggest why memory-images of the First World War seem to be implicated in the Park Lane landscape (here restricted to images taken at Marble Arch as later renovations have been made further south).

MA steps 1MA steps 2
German trench Steps to sub-surface piazza, Marble Arch

MA piazza 2
French General inspects trenches Sub-surface piazza, Marble Arch

MA trench 1MA trench 2
Underground trench junction Pedestrian subway, Marble Arch

MA bunker 1MA bunker 2
German bunker LU Tube entrance, Marble Arch

MA bridge 1MA bridge 2
French troops crossing the Yser Pedestrian bridge, Marble Arch

MA barrier 1MA barrier 2
Casualty on barbed wire Traffic barrier, Marble Arch

As with the example of the Robin Hood Gardens estate in previous entries, perceiving the Park Lane traffic system as a projection of memory-images from 1914-18 can be suggested by using graphic rather than photographic images.

To find a root source for the impressions I sense around Park Lane, I went to old Trench maps from the war, available today in reproduced form at map shops such as Stanfords on Long Acre. Chief among them are detailed maps from the Somme area, site of the worst disasters of the British Army in its history. Beaumont Hamel, in particular, was the site of some of the most horrific engagements on the Somme in 1916.

It had an intricate system of trenches which, because they had been stable for months on end, had acquired names, many taken from places back home, often London streets.
map beaumont hamel 0

A detail of the British lines can be expanded, and the familiar names stand out:
map beaumont hamel 2

Curiously, just around here, a concentration of names from the West End and Mayfair in particular seems to have occurred. These names I have emphasised in red:
map beaumont hamel 3

It appears as if, on finding themselves settled in the troglodyte world of the Somme for months on end, soldiers stationed there named their trenches as if they were streets and, in a mood probably of nostalgia more than anything else, called them after familiar streets back home. They were reminding themselves of home.

However, after the opening of the Battle of the Somme on the 1st of July 1916 and the traumatising horror of that day when 20,000 British troops were killed, and the subsequent bogging down in the same place of horror for four more months of grinding battle, that streetscape of trenches ingrained itself as a home of its own, replacing to a certain extent the original back in England.

When, years later, it came to settling down back home again, the same nostalgic process of reminding oneself of home re-occurred, only this time, instead of bringing the names back from France, the trenches themselves were brought back, in the guise of a traffic system. In the map below, I have marked out the trenches in brown. Thus, in 1958-62, the soldiers’ home in the trenches was repatriated to Piccadilly. In red, I have marked the names used on the trench map from Beaumont Hamel, and the features of the traffic scheme I think have resonance with a trench system.

map Park Lane map

In this way, in 1958-63, the home made in the trenches of the Somme was repatriated to Piccadilly, and another layer was added to the meaning of the final line from “Tipperary” traditionally sung by the soldiers heading up to the Front:
“Goodbye Piccadilly,
farewell Leicester Square,
it’s a long, long way to Tipperary,
but my heart lies there”.