If we plant our feet at Buckingham Palace and then begin walking eastward to the other end of the Mall, we come to Admiralty Arch. Once a naval headquarters (but now soon to be a Waldorf Astoria hotel), the building actually has three archways, the center one reserved exclusively for when Royals want to go driving through it. We walkers don’t mind using an outside arch, though, because they all open onto the busy, fascinating, culture-crammed plaza known as Trafalgar Square.
We could stroll around Trafalgar in about 20 minutes—or take an entire day poking into its wealth of offerings. Let’s choose a quick look for now.
Dominating the space is a 170-foot monument that gave the square its name. The column is topped by a statue of Lord Horatio Nelson who won the 1805 sea battle against the navies of France and Spain off the coast of Spain at Trafalgar. Admittedly, Nelson was a pretty beat-up hero: by the start of the battle he had already lost an eye and an arm; and he, in fact, died from wounds at the famous battle. But Trafalgar made Britain the mistress of all the seas, and a grateful nation raised this prominent monument to him.
To the north of the square we see the National Gallery of Art, a world-renown art collection open free to visitors all year long. We could easily spend a morning there, grab a quick bite in the cafeteria, and then lose ourselves in art for the rest of the day. I guarantee that you’ll always find a favorite work of art.
To the right of the National Gallery is the church St. Martin’s-in-the- Fields. The name now seems a bit laughable: though the original medieval building was constructed in the middle of fields, this 18th century structure is right in the thick of urban London. Its current fame, though, comes from brilliant musical recordings made by its English chamber orchestra established in 1959 by the great conductor Neville Marriner.
The center of the square, graced with pools and terraces, opens expansively for public activities ranging from anti-war protests to celebrations of soccer victories. Sometimes a massive screen is raised and simulcast opera or rock performances are streamed for audiences who have brought chairs and snacks to sit and watch.
At each corner of the square are plinths that—in three instances—support an equestrian statue and two sculptures of military heroes. Since the 1990s, though, the fourth plinth has been reserved to display contemporary art. One year was a six-foot-high ship in a bottle (a replica of Lord Nelson’s ship HMS Victory)–and that has been one of the more conservative art selections. In 2013 you could have seen a 15-foot high blue fiberglass rooster.
But our attention irresistibly is drawn back to Nelson’s Column. Nestled at the feet of the monument are four massive, 22-foot-tall lion sculptures designed by the artist Edwin Landseer. A 2018 art project placed a fifth lion there, fluorescent and electronic; people would speak to it, the words would be collected through the day and at day’s end this red lion would roar the poem to the public.
What an amazing space.
And by turning our heads just a quarter-turn we can see down White Hall to our third and final destination on this particular London walk: Big Ben.
Next Time: Whitehall
Photo credits: Open source