Trafalgar Square – the heart of London
Trafalgar Square honors Britain’s greatest naval commander and is surrounded by interesting sites and attractions, such as the National Gallery, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and the Admiralty Arch. This bustling area is truly the center of London and the many stately buildings that ring Trafalgar Square—including South Africa House and Canada House—provide a glimpse into the time when the sun never set on the British Empire.
Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson
When a man defeats an enemy of superior strength in a decisive naval battle, he is a brilliant and daring sailor. When that battle turns the tide of a war and prevents the man’s country from possible invasion, the man is a savior. When the same man is mortally wounded while directing the battle from the deck of his ship, he dies as a hero and is forever honored by his countrymen. The man was Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
The Battle of Trafalgar, which took place on October 21, 1805 off the coast of Spain near Cape Trafalgar, was the most significant naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Nelson led a fleet of 27 British Navy ships against 33 French and Spanish ships. Not one British ship was lost. Among the many ways that a grateful nation honored Nelson were naming Trafalgar Square after that decisive battle and placing an 18-foot statue of the Admiral atop the 151-foot granite column in its center.
Trafalgar Square, with its fountains, four bronze lions (whose metal is said to come from French cannons captured in the battle) by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, and a now-diminishing pigeon population (a ban on the sale of bird seed has reduced their numbers) is a gathering place for protesters, holiday shoppers admiring the Square’s huge Christmas tree, tourists, and school groups visiting one of the nearby sites. The Square is surrounded by very busy streets, but improvements have made the area more pedestrian friendly and accessible. Pedestrian underpasses provide safe passageways to nearby transportation stations, museums, theaters, and eating establishments.
National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery
Admission is free for both the National Gallery and the adjacent National Portrait Gallery, although both museums charge for special exhibitions.Covering European paintings from 1250 to 1900, the National Gallery includes such masterpieces as da Vinci’s cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières. With a collection that ranges from paintings of Elizabeth I to photos of Kate Moss, the National Portrait Gallery lets you come face to face with the royals, artists, and statesmen that shaped the history of Britain.
St. Martin-in-the-Fields is an Anglican church that serves its resident parishioners and community as well as its tourist guests with a remarkable blend of religions services (in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese), history, music, and charitable works. Many homeless and hungry Londoners are fed and sheltered by church volunteers.
The London Brass Rubbing Centre is located in the church’s crypt, as is the Café in the Crypt. The combination of food and hands-on activities can be a boon for families with young children. St. Martin-in-the-Fields was designed by James Gibbs who also designed Radcliffe Camera at Oxford’s University Church.
Concerts (afternoon and evening) are held in both the church and the crypt, with music ranging from Bach sacred cantatas to new jazz fusion compositions.
A statue of George Washington—smaller scale than other statues in Trafalgar Square—stands near St. Martin-in-the-Fields in front of the National Gallery. A gift from the state of Virginia the the statue stands on dirt imported from the U.S. to honor Washington’s promise that he would “never again set foot on English soil.”
The Admiralty Arch forms the eastern end of The Mall—Buckingham Palace is at the other end—and was built to honor Queen Victoria. Its central gate is reserved for royal processions. This office building houses part of the Cabinet Office and other government bureaus.
Trafalgar Square has several neighboring sites that might be of interest to visitors.
The cross in front of nearby Charing Cross train and tube stations is a replica (only three of the 12 crosses survive) of the original erected by King Edward I to mark one of the stops along the funeral journey of Eleanor, his queen, as her body was taken from Lincolnshire to Westminster Abbey in 1290.
The original cross stood on the south side of Trafalgar Square, now the location of a statue of King Charles I (on horseback, of course). The site is considered the center of London—from which mapping and mileage measurements are taken—so Trafalgar can truly be considered the “heart” of London.
by Katie Calvert