A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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Brighton Cross

Kip Fenn
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45 - Couchant lions, mermen, Mandela, Charing Cross and the fourth plinth

Emerging from The Mall and crossing various lanes of traffic I make it in one piece to Trafalgar Square. The 300 easting runs straight through Nelson's Column, between the fountains, and into the natty little Cafe on the Square, which has been dug out of the concrete between two levels.

One of the earliest maps of this area, dating from the 16th century, shows little more than two churches: St Martin here and, a mile north, St Giles, with a track - today's St Martin's Lane - running between them. On the map, there are a few houses clustered around Charing Cross, just south of St Martin Church. It also shows the 'Mewes' where Henry VIII's falcons were once caged or 'mewed'. For many years, though, King's Mews was used for stabling. Samuel Pepys visited the Duke of York's stables here in the early 1660s. But, by the end of the 1700s, the properties were being leased out.

Trafalgar Square was laid out in the first half of the 19th century to a plan by Sir Charles Barry, although Nash is credited with the original idea. It is dominated by a massive granite Corinthian column, designed by William Railton, with Admiral Horatio Nelson, designed by Edward Hodges Baily, standing aloft some 180ft high. The four bronze panels on the sides of the pedestal were cast from captured French guns and show four of Nelson's great battles. Alas, the great Admiral died at the last of them - Trafalgar - in 1805. The many tourists that flock to the Square, however, barely notice Nelson, even though he's 17 ft tall and is said to weigh 16 tons. They are far more interested in the four giant couchant lions, designed by the celebrated animal painter Sir Edward Landseer, placed here in 1867, 25 years after Nelson went up. The fountains here belong to Barry's original design, but Edwin Lutyens remodelled them before World War Two. Some lithe dolphin-friendly mermen and merwomen were added after the war.

Trafalgar Square is not only an important stop on the tourist route, but a key focal point for Londoners. Revellers gather here in their thousands on New Year's Eve, congregating around a tall fir tree, gifted by Norway every year, and wait for the midnight chimes of a big clock visible southward down Whitehall. In recent years, police have been required in increasing numbers to keep order. It is also a favoured place for protesters who often gather or end their marches here. Such 20th century protesters include women calling for the vote, hunger marchers, anti-fascists, anti-nuclear campaigners, coal miners, and poll tax objectors.

South Africa House (another Herbert Baker building), on the east side of the square, has attracted more than its fair share of protests - all against apartheid. During the 1980s, more than 600 people were arrested during such protests. And, in the latter half of the decade, a 24 hour vigil was kept up for nearly four years, until the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. In April 2001 many of the anti-apartheid campaigners returned to join Mandela himself for a concert celebrating democracy in South Africa. It was the first concert ever allowed here, thanks to a decision by London's popular major Ken Livingstone. It is also thanks to Livingstone that traffic no longer uses the square as a roundabout, since the busy road that used to divide the square from the steps to the National Gallery has been pedestrianised. What took London's authorities so long to realise the sense of this?

Nelson and the lions apart, the plaza is not short of other monuments. Just south of the square is the traffic island which contains the 350 year old Charles I equestrian statue, by the French artist Eustache Le Sueur. The island also houses a brass plate which marks the spot where the original Charing Cross actually stood, and where all distances to and from London are measured. In the centre of Trafalgar Square, embedded in the parapet wall, is another brass plaque. This one was originally created by the Board of Trade to provide the Imperial Standards of Length (such as for an inch, foot, yard) and carries the date in Roman numerals (1776). In addition, along the parapet wall, there are three bronze busts of admirals. Spaced around the square are four large plinths, three of which are occupied: King George IV (who died while the square was being laid out); Sir Henry Havelock, a forceful 19th century military commander in India; and Sir Charles Napier (he, who worked hard for the empire in present day Pakistan, and whose brother lived in King's Avenue). The plinth for the latter carries the following inscription: 'Erected by public subscription the most numerous contributors being private soldiers.'

The fourth plinth is an anomaly. There's nothing on it. This is the way it's been for over 150 years, except between 1991 and 2001. Cecil Rhodes, George III, William IV, Sir Winston Churchill and others have all been considered and rejected as suitable subjects for a sculpture on the plinth. But in the late 1990s, the Royal Society commissioned three works for temporary display: 'Ecce Homo' by Mark Wallinger (1999), 'Regardless of History' by Bill Woodrow (2000) and 'Monument' by Rachel Whiteread (2001). The latter caused controversy because it was no more (or less) than an upside down perspex reproduction of the plinth itself. Subsequently, an independent committee recommended that the plinth should continue to be used for temporary works of art commissioned from leading national and international artists. This idea was accepted and a competition held for possible future works.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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