There are places in the world so breathtaking that even the most cynical among us become enchanted in their presence. Nature can be so beautiful that it reduces people to tears, triggers rapture and even makes people question their life’s purpose. After 18 months starved of travel and confined to concrete clad London, I needed to visit a place that could elicit a similar emotional response in me. So to the world’s newest beauty spot I ventured, in hope of spiritual enlightenment.
I am talking, of course, about the Marble Arch Mound – which (and this is a long sentence so take a deep breath) opened to a disgruntled public last month, before closing because it was so universally derided, issued refunds to disappointed punters, then reopened again for free, before everyone realised it was even more expensive than people had previously anticipated, causing a councillor to resign. Phew. Yes. That’s it.
Was the rampant criticism it received valid or could this be the enchanting experience I wanted? I visited the Marble Arch Mound and this is what I found.
It is a hot day and as I reach Mound basecamp at around 3pm. I am excited for my pilgrimage. I join a queue – spaced with blue barriers – and wait as security guards search people’s bags before they are allowed to ascend.
Behind me, cynics anticipate the climb.
“I won’t be paying to go up it,” a man tells his friend.
“Hell to the f*****g no,” rings the reply.
The greatest art is not appreciated in its own time so I shake my head at the naysayers and gaze up at the verdant hill with hope. There is a world up there, and I intend to see it.
Time passes and a glance at my watch reveals it has taken seven minutes to trudge through the queue before I am allowed to reassure security that I bring nothing but a bottle of water with me and wish the mound no ill will. Why there is anticipation that the MAM could be the site of a security risk will soon be revealed as a clear example of the hill’s hubris in action but I digress.
And so, after being ushered to the entrance by an… usher… I pound the metal stairs that twist round the hilly sculpture as my footsteps cause the shaky structures to clang.
It takes about a minute to reach the top and then I am there. Wow. Breathless, I stand looking at the vertiginous drop below me. I am level with the birds. People rushing through the streets below are ants. This must be what those who summit Everest must feel like, I think and consider leaving a flag.
It is only 25 metres high and it is s**t.
The landing platform is reminiscent of an aeroplane walkway and has none of the promise of an upcoming £10 bag of crisps to go with it. As one, disappointed people trudge round the square like prisoners exercising in a yard and half-heartedly take selfies and photos of the ‘view’.
Ah yes, the view. One one side, Hyde Park looms beneath – except it is eclipsed by trees.
At another viewpoint, scaffolding surrounds a building. What wonders of the world could possible compare?
If that isn’t enough, lucky viewers can also squint at perhaps three metres worth of Oxford Street at a jaunty angle. How else could you plan which shops you want to go to?
Meanwhile, cheap railing – while helpfully preventing people from tumbling off the mound – means this ‘view’ is punctuated with metal rods, really underlining the jail vibe. I am a prisoner looking out to central London and the freedom it entails.
“This is so disappointing,” someone laments behind me.
“There’s nothing to see,” their companion agrees.
And so do I..
So, with a knowing smile at my fellow victims, I climb back down the clangy stairs, accidentally bumping into eager people skipping to the summit, unaware of the sheer nothingness that awaits them. At the bottom, I am spat back out into the metropolis through a different queue, unsure what to do next.
I came to the MAM with an open mind. While travelling to it I reflected on the scoffing nature of social media and resolved to bring a positive attitude or – at the very least – give an unbiased fair-trial to the well-meaning (?) people at Westminster Council who had flushed £6m of public money down a toilet.
But no, the MAM was worse than I could ever have predicted and the only emotional response it delivered was shocking disappointment to the point of hilarity that I felt when I reached the top and realised my reward was the opportunity to stand on a larger version of a pavement gutter and peer out at a boarded up Topshop (RIP).
Climbing the MAM is biting into a chocolate chip cookie and realising that – wait – it’s not chocolate, it’s raisins. Climbing the MAM is unwrapping a promising Christmas present aged nine and realising its something to help you with school. Climbing the MAM is counting down to usher in a New Year but failing to ignite accompanying fireworks.
So where does that leave me? I was in search of an excursion that would rival even the most pretentious of gap yahs. I wanted nature, greenery and the thrill of seeing a city I love from afar. But the only buzz I got was one from my FitBit informing me I had gone up a few flights of stairs.
There are places in the world so breathtaking that even the most cynical among us become enchanted in their presence. A slip road off the M25 would do more to fit that bill than the Marble Arch Mound.