Feature by Lizzie Guilfoyle
TRAFALGAR Square is one of the most famous squares in the world. Situated in the very heart of London, at the intersection of Pall Mall, Charing Cross Road, The Mall and The Strand, it’s primarily a tribute to one of Britain’s great naval heroes, Admiral Nelson, who, in 1805, made the ultimate sacrifice defending his country from the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Fittingly, his 18ft high statue, resting upon a 170ft high column, dominates the square.
Looking up, or across from the London Eye for that matter, the whole thing seems very much smaller than its dimensions would suggest.
But an indication of its true size lies in a little known fact – that 14 stonemasons actually dined on the flat top of the column before Nelson’s statue was installed.
At its base and seeming to guard the column, are Sir Edwin Landseer’s four, huge, bronze lions resting on granite plinths. Tolerant in the extreme, they remain unperturbed by the thousands of visitors who use them as photo props.
The fountains, the design of Sir Edwin Lutyens, complete the tableau. The glistening sculptures of mermaids/men and dolphins are particularly beautiful when sunlight illuminates the spray and as such, have been photographed many times.
Trafalgar Square’s original, neo-classical design of the 1820’s, was the inspiration of John Nash. It was, however, modified in 1840, by architect, Charles Barry, who created the northern terrace and installed steps – much as it is now, and a far cry from the days when Dr Johnson frequented what was then part meeting place, part mews for the royal hawks and later, royal stables.
Apart from Nelson, several lesser statues adorn the square. Set on large pedestals, two commemorate the Indian army heroes, Sir Charles Napier and Sir Henry Havelock, while a third is an equestrian statue of George IV. A fourth pedestal acts as a platform for temporary exhibits.
There is, however, a fourth statue – that of Charles I on horseback. It stands on a traffic island at the south end of the square, on what was the original site of Charing Cross.
Charing Cross was, in fact, the last of 12 crosses erected by Edward I in 1290, to mark the 12 resting places of his wife’s funeral cortege, as it journeyed from Nottinghamshire to Westminster Abbey. It was removed during the Civil War, but a replica now stands in the forecourt of Charing Cross Station.
And if, like me, you’ve ever wondered from what point all ‘distances from London’ are measured, Charles I marks the spot.
Also worthy of note are the buildings bordering the square. On the north side is the National Gallery, home to masterpieces by Leonardo Da Vinci and Rubens and next to it, the National Portrait Gallery where, among Britain’s sovereigns and heroes, hangs a painting of Emma Hamilton, the wife of Sir William Hamilton, and the mistress of Nelson.
Close by, in the north-east corner of the square, is the church of St Martins-in-the-Fields, while further along, on the east side, stands South Africa House. Pause for a moment, and you will see African animals featured on its stone arches.
Across the square, on the west side, is Canada House, where visiting Canadians can read newspapers from home, surf the internet and even send and receive e-mails.
Trafalgar Square is a popular venue for rallies and public meetings and each year, at Christmas time, a giant spruce tree stands there – a gift from the people of Norway, in gratitude for Britain’s part in the liberation of their country during World War II.
Decorated with hundreds of lights and a focal point for carol singers, it embodies the true spirit of Christmas.
And, of course, there are the pigeons – as much a part of the square as Nelson himself. But feed them at your peril – a few crumbs and you could, quite literally, be swamped!
For more on Nelson, see his burial place in St Paul’s Cathedral, or visit his flagship, HMS Victory, at Portsmouth Harbour.