However many times you visit Waterloo, there is something about the place that stops you in your tracks. Apart from the ‘Allied Ridge’ (where the Lion Mound and the main visitor attractions are situated) the topography has hardly changed in 200 years. It’s criss-crossed with footpaths, farm tracks and cobbled lanes, which lend themselves to rewarding and revealing walks. Here, and in the surrounding villages of Papelotte, La Haye and Plancenoit, is where the true atmosphere of the battle can still be felt.
The most evocative spot is Hougoumont farm (also restored for the bicentenary) where the Allies placed their right flank and had their first contact with the French, managing by a whisker to repel a full-scale infantry assault despite being heavily outnumbered. The intensity of the fighting and the extent of the carnage at Hougoumont shocked even battle-hardened veterans, and in the years that followed it became a place of pilgrimage for novelists (Walter Scott, Victor Hugo), poets (Byron and Shelley) and artists, including J.M.W. Turner, who sketched the farm during a trip to the Rhineland.
Four kilometres south of the Lion Mound is the farmhouse of Caillou where Napoleon spent the night before the battle. At a breakfast conference on 18 June he told his marshalls: “Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops, and this affair is nothing more than eating breakfast.” The Prussians burnt the house shortly after the battle, but it was rebuilt and now houses a museum containing various Napoleonic artefacts, including the Emperor’s camp bed. In the garden an ossuary preserves the many bones unearthed in the surrounding fields.