Hougoumont, The Battlefield of Waterloo
Hougoumont sits 1.2km from the Butte de Lion down an atmospheric sunken lane (though not the lane that existed down to Waterloo). It is possibly the most evocative site on the battlefield.
Considering that just a few years ago the place was a crumbling ruin, the restoration work carried out by Project Hougoumont is spectacular. The barn has been rebuilt, the walls strengthened, and a new gate hung at the site where McDonnell and his men famously closed the gate to cut off the French who had gained access to the courtyard. A fitting and visually impressive memorial to this event, (depicting men in the act of closing the gate) stands opposite it.
Very little of the old chateau itself remains. Only the chapel and part of the walls surround the staircase are still standing. The building was gutted by the fire caused by French artillery on 18th June 1815.
The south side of the Chateau wall, and gardener’s house, are particularly well preserved, looking virtually identical to how it did in 1815, especially around the south gate. Visitors should also take the time to examine the three dead trees opposite the south gate, on which bullet holes are still visible. The old formal rose garden is now a paddock, with the main feature being a memorial to the French who never actually gain control of the place. Some steps have thoughtfully been constructed in the paddock by the south wall to give visitors an idea of the perspective that the defenders has as they stood on makeshift firesteps to fire over the wall on 18th June.
The site is wonderfully tranquil, which I think is only proper, and while eating lunch in the courtyard, it was surprisingly easy to imagine what the scene must have been like as Hougoumont burned, or the French gained access via the north gate. That fits well, I think, with the mood created by the Memorial 1815 museum, but there is one caveat. Project Hougoumont have created an extremely clever lights show which plays in the barn where the wounded burnt to death (the restoration of the barn itself is, incidentally, truly spectacular). Visually the show is very impressive. Atmospheric lighting casts the darkened barn in a red glow designed to evoke thoughts of the fact that the place caught fire. The show consists of three huge boards, which, on one side have sculptures mounts onto them of key parts of the story of Hougoumont’s defence. Light is then played onto these in such a way that it adds colour to the people depicted (ie, rather than being white plaster, the faces and uniforms of both the British and French soldiers are the correct colours). The issue is that sometimes the show needs a flat surface to project onto, so the boards rotate between flat and sculpted sides about 20 times, with each rotation being marked by a pause in the story of Hougoumont’s defence, which is punctuated by dramatic music based around booming drumbeats. If you are outside the barn, the effect is to completely ruin the tranquillity, although I had the good fortune to have the entirety of Hougoumont to myself, so was not affected.
The other issue with the show is the way that it is laced with a variety of ‘inspiring/manly’ comments about how ‘there are moment when men become heroes’. The deep baritone of the narrator’s voice is designed to add to the effect, and I’m sure for many the impact is an inspirational one. Whilst I do not question the heroism of those who attacked and defended the chateau, I find it difficult to see the glory of war, especially considering the huge numbers of people who died at Waterloo. Perhaps a member of the armed forces might see things differently. I would personally have preferred the show to be less overwhelming on the senses (ie quieter), and to avoid the slightly cliché ‘death and glory’ attitude.
Nonetheless, as a piece of production, the show is phenomenal, and for those who want to be inspired by the story of Hougoumont’s defence, this is easily one of the best and most engaging retellings of the episode that I have come across, in any format.
Personal tastes aside, it is impossible not to commend Project Hougoumont for their work, and equally impossible not to have an emotional reaction to Hougoumont, whether it be one of inspiration, or reflection on the significance of what took place here. Hougoumont proved impregnable, becoming a siege within the Battle of Waterloo. Its importance as a strategic outpost of the Allied lines remains open to debate, but there are few better locations from which to absorb the aura that shrouds Waterloo.
My advice to visitors is very simple. Whatever you do on a trip to Waterloo, make time to visit Hougoumont. It certainly will not disappoint.
If you have any questions about the Battle of Waterloo, its significance, or would like advice on visiting the area, post a comment in the forum, and I will get back to you.