Where is it?
Trafalgar Square is about as close to the centre of London as you can get and is where a number of the Monopoly board properties converge; Strand (red) to the east, Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue (pink) to the south, Pall Mall (pink) to the west and Leicester Square (yellow) to the north.
What’s the story?
One of our favourite pass times in this country seems to be going on about beating the French in battles. Trafalgar Square is no exception. It was opened as a public square in the 1840s and named after a naval battle we won against a joint French and Spanish fleet off the south-west coast of Spain (near Cape Trafalgar) in 1805. Prior to that, the area had been known as ‘King’s Mews’, housing the Royal stables which were moved to their current site within the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
The name ‘Trafalgar’ is actually of Arabic origin, originally being ‘Taraf - al - Ghar’ meaning ‘extremity’ or ‘edge’, in reference to the Cape Trafalgar’s coastal position.
How do I get there?
One of the exits of Charing Cross Underground Station pops out in Trafalgar Square itself. Failing that, Embankment and Leicester Square Underground stations are just a few minutes away.
What’s it like now?
Trafalgar Square is a sort of magnet in London, effortlessly pulling tourists towards it, largely because it is in the midst of a host of sights and places popular with visitors, but also because it’s Trafalgar Square …and heading to Trafalgar Square is just what you do.
The road running along the north side of the square in front of the National Gallery was pedestrianised just under 20-years ago, and has become a place for human statues in Yoda costumes, street performers, buskers, pick pockets and what author Russell Hoban would describe as ‘the low budget drinking club' to hang out.
It’s the kind of place you might want to pass through rather than linger and have a picnic. However, if you get there early in the morning before it gets busy it can be quite tranquil.
Trafalgar Square has been a place for political demonstrations and gatherings since it opened and today is no different, often hosting celebrations of the different faiths and cultures that make London such a cosmopolitan city.
Where would I stay?
You have plenty of options. Aside from the hotels I included in the Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue post, I’ve picked people up to do tours from the Haymarket Hotel, which is a minutes walk from Trafalgar Square on Suffolk Place. I’ve been to the St Martin’s Lane Hotel on the lane of the same name and as mentioned before, the Amba Hotel over Charing Cross station is a popular choice. There seems to be a plethora of private apartments that can be rented in the area too.
What’s of interest?
Out of all the properties on the Monopoly board, Trafalgar Square is the most compact, but there are many interesting things all within a couple of hundred yards.
Opened in 1838, the National Gallery began life in the 1820s in a house on Pall Mall with 38 paintings that had belonged to a banker called John Julius Angerstein. Today the collection comprises just under 3,000 paintings, including works by Hans Holbein, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian and Turner …to name but a few. One of my personal favourites is ‘Supper at Emmaus’ by Caravaggio.
In 1991, the Sainsbury Wing opened on the north-west corner of the square and houses much of the renaissance works in the collection.
National Portrait Gallery
With its entrance just around the corner from the National Gallery on Charing Cross Road, when it opened in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery was the first gallery dedicated to portraits in the world. The galleries are all arranged chronologically, displaying portraits of historically significant or famous British people and includes the ‘Chandos Portrait’ of William Shakespeare.
The collection also comprises a large amount of photographs and each year hosts the BP Portrait Award in which anyone of the age of 18 can submit a portrait for consideration. About 50 or 60 portraits are chosen for the exhibition and is always a treat.
As the name of this church would suggest, this area was once quite rural. There’s been a church on the site since the 13th century and the current one, which presides over the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square was completed in 1726 to the design of architect James Gibbs. St Martin-in-the-Fields hosts regular free lunchtime concerts, has a café in the crypt and a brass rubbing centre and exhibition space. They also run a homeless shelter next door. Fans of Harry Potter might be intrigued to learn that J.K Rowling worked for Amnesty International in offices beneath the church in the early 1990s, when she was working on the Harry Potter series.
Being in Trafalgar Square, you’re never going to be far from a theatre, but just a few steps up St Martin’s Lane you’ll find the London Coliseum which was opened in 1904 by theatre impresario Oswald Stoll. The story goes that Stoll meant it to be named after the Colosseum in Rome, but spelt it incorrectly which he later maintained he’d done on purpose. Then again you probably would, wouldn’t you? Today’s it home to the ENO, the English National Opera.
Dominating the south end of Trafalgar Square is the imposing Nelson’s Column, which stands just under 170ft tall and is topped off by a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar. The column was completed in 1843 and apparently is the same height as the mast of Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory.
The four bronze lions around the base are equally famous and were added some 25 years later and created by Edwin Landseer who interestingly was a water colourist and had never made a sculpture in his life. Supposedly, Queen Victoria had a couple of dead lions sent to his studio to use as models, but he chose to base the hind legs and back end of each lion on his own dogs, which is why it’s physically impossible for an actual to lion to sit as Landseer’s lions do in Trafalgar Square.
The Fourth Plinth
There are a number of ‘dead white men’ statues in the square including King George IV on the north-east corner. However, funds ran out before the final statue of King William IV could be added on the north-west corner and for the next 150 years or so it remained empty. Since the early 2000s the plinth has become a place for temporary artworks including sculptures by Antony Gormley, Yinka Shonibare and more recently Michael Rakowitz’s ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’. There are some who believe the spot is being reserved for a statue of The Queen after she pops her clogs, and after recent events, calls have been made for it to be a place to honour victims of the slave trade.
American visitors might be interested to see a statue of George Washington on a patch of grass outside the National Gallery, next to Charing Cross Road. It was a gift from the people of Virginia in the 1920s and legend would have you believe that because Washington said he never wanted to set foot on English soil, American soil was shipped over with the statue and laid down beneath.
On a little roundabout just to the south of Trafalgar Square is a statue of King Charles I who has the distinction of being the only Monarch we’ve ever executed. He had his head chopped off on the 30th January 1649 at Banqueting House (visible down Whitehall from the statue). The statue had actually been made during Charles I’s lifetime and a guy called John Rivett had been asked to melt it down and turn it in to souvenirs that people could buy at the execution. However, it turns out that John Rivett was a Royalist (which he neglected to mention), melted down something else and hid the statue. Then when Charles II returned in 1660, Rivett sold it back to him.
Just opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery is a statue of a nurse called Edith Cavell who during WWI was executed by a German firing squad after being accused of espionage. Although she had been helping to evacuate British soldiers from occupied Belgium, as a nurse she tended to soldiers from all sides without discrimination and the base of the statue is inscribed with her quote “I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”.
Other points of interest
The Centre of London
On the roundabout, just behind the statue of Charles I is a plaque on the floor which basically marks the centre of London and mentions also that ‘Mileages from London are measured from this point’.
The spot marks where the final cross was erected in 1290 on the behest of Edward I after his wife Eleanor died and was brought from Lincoln to Westminster. There were 12 crosses altogether and marked the processional route to London (A 19th century replica stands outside Charing Cross railway station), but the central-ness of the spot really boils down to it being a central meeting point between the City of Westminster and the City of London when there was little else in between. Since 1865 cab drivers have been required to learn ‘the knowledge’, which are streets, monuments, hotels and places of interest, from memory. Today that amounts to about 24,000 streets and 320 routes within a 6-mile radius of that exact plaque.
Britain’s smallest Police station
On the south-east corner of Trafalgar Square is a pillar which many people pass without a second glance. It was in fact added in the 1920s as a lock-up for drunk and disorderly people. (A drunk tank). Today it seems to be used to house odds and ends like brushes and bags of grit.
The crossing lights
When you cross the roads around Trafalgar Square, pay particular attention to the crossing lights. They must surely be the most politically correct crossing lights in the world. A few years ago, the ubiquitous ‘green man’ was changed to celebrate the Pride Festival to two men or two women holdings hands, and even a couple bearing the transgender sign. It seems no one got around to changing them back and last year, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan decided they should stay forever.
A distinct lack of pigeons
If I meet people on walks who haven’t been to London for 20 or 30 years, and are in Trafalgar Square, they always say “Where have the pigeons gone?”. Trafalgar Square was famous for having a population of about 30,000 pigeons and people would buy bird seed from vendors to feed them. It cost Westminster Council a fortune in cleaning away bird poo, plus the fact that it damages stone work and statues. About 20-years ago, the pigeon food sellers were banned and now every morning someone turns up with a Harrier Hawk or two and flies them around to scare the pigeons away. It works.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.