travel guide

Trafalgar Square and Admiralty Arch, The Beating Heart of London

Trafalgar Square is one of the most important and liveliest squares in London.   It is estimated that around 15 million tourists visit the square every year and it is one of the ten most popular tourist attractions in the capital.   Along with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, it is one of the major symbols of London and has, and is, one of the key sites in the history of Britain’s social movements.  It is a place  of history, of democracy and of celebration.  However, you don’t have to go to Trafalgar Square to celebrate an event or take part in a demonstration.  Just being there, sitting by the fountains and Nelson’s Column, watching the world go by and drinking in the beautiful buildings that surround the square is a good enough reason.  

The Square itself was designed in 1830 to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar, in which Britain was victorious against the nautical battles between France and Spain.  Its location puts it slap bang in the middle of London, acting as a thoroughfare between the West End and the City of London. The official centre of London is marked by a plaque  behind the statue of King Charles 1st, on a traffic island at the southern end of the square,  It is from this spot that distances to London on road signs throughout Britain are measured from.  This includes Google maps. So entering London into a Google map will always take this point as its starting line.   

Every year Trafalgar Square receives a majestic Christmas tree, donated by Norway, in gratitude to Britain’s support during the Second World War. This splendid tree is erected in the square, decorated in the Norwegian style and carollers representing diverse charitable groups give concerts around it in the lead up to Christmas. 

London, UK – October 8, 2011: A crowd of anti-war protesters gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square during a Stop the War demo.

Throughout history the square has  acted as a central point for rallies, demonstrations and issues of national democracy and protest.  The Square has an estimated capacity to hold up to 19,999 people at any one time. Examples of protests in the square include Bloody Sunday in 1887, when protestors marched against unemployment and coercion in Ireland. In 1915, the Suffragette, Christabel Pankhurst, held a rally there.  Here too was the first Aldermaston March against nuclear weapons in the 1950s.  Not surprisingly,  many anti-war protests have taken place in the Square, including the Stop the War coalition demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Also campaigns against Brexit in 2017 and, more recently, campaigns against climate change. This democratic tradition is fully supported by the Mayor of London although, interestingly, there is not one single plaque or monument to the many crusades which have been held here, nor to the hundreds and thousands of people who have marched through the square. 

On a lighter note, celebrations were held in the square to mark the end of both World Wars One and Two.  Cultural celebrations such as the Hindu, Sikh and Jain Festival of Lights during Diwali is held in Trafalgar Square and, every July 1st, Canada Day celebrations take place there – as the offices of the High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom is housed across from the square in Canada House, a splendid Greek Revival building.  Also, each New Year sees Trafalgar Square burst with joyous celebrations with fireworks being set off just a few metres down at the riverfront. 

One interesting fact about Trafalgar, and in keeping with its reputation for campaigning around issues of equality, democracy, fairness and inclusion for all, is the existence of the unusual traffic lights used on the pedestrian crossings around the Square.  Instead of the usual green walking man symbol to indicate it is safe to cross, these lights now display symbols to represent different relationship types. They include two men and two women holding hands and forming a heart as well as various gender symbols including a transgender sign. 

That said, there are several things that are forbidden in Trafalgar Square.  These include swimming in the fountains, camping in the square – it used to be a place where traditionally homeless people would spend the night.   Also, in the past, feeding the pigeons was a traditional thing to do when visiting the Square.  This is not allowed anymore and the vendors of pigeon food have long gone.  Finally, although it seems to be often ignored, climbing on the statues of the lions is not permitted. 

Apart from the iconic Nelson’s Column, the fountains and the statues, the surrounding buildings are also something to come to the square for.  The National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery both have an amazing collection of paintings which  can be visited for free and, inside the National Gallery, you can find a treasure trove of artwork that includes Van Gogh’s painting of the Sunflowers and Michelangelo’s The Entombment.  Also a neighbour to the Square, is the beautiful St-Martin-in-the-Fields church.  A church has stood on this site since the 13th century and although the fields are long gone the church has a fascinating history.  You can attend the daily service or enjoy free classical concerts there during the week.  Special ticketed evening concerts are also held.  The church also has a wonderful cafe in its crypt and you can also visit their Brass Rubbing Centre and create your own souvenir. 

Another neighbour is South Africa House, decorated with sculptures of plants and animals it has a beautiful art deco springbok.

Although Trafalgar Square is internationally famous for its iconic statues and fountains and for being the home of the National Gallery it has an interesting history with many facts that are not often known.  Below is a brief overview of its history and  insights into some of the hidden secrets that the Square holds. 

History of Trafalgar Square

The original site of where Trafalgar Square now stands was a hamlet just outside medieval City of London, known as Charing.  The name derives from the old English word ‘cierring’ which means ‘turning’ and refers to the fact that this is where the River Thames bends.  It has always been a place where people gathered and met and  in 1290 the area became more commonly known as Charing Cross.  This came about after King Edward I erected ornate stone crosses in memory of his Queen Eleanor of Castile.  She died at Harby near Lincoln and her body was brought back to London for burial at Westminster Abbey by her broken hearted husband.  He ordered the stone crosses to be erected at each overnight stop on that journey.  There were 12 altogether with the final stop being made at Charing.  Only three of the original crosses survive today and, sadly, none of them are complete.  The Charing Cross was originally sited at the top of Whitehall on the south side of Trafalgar Square.  However, it was destroyed during the English civil war.  It was later  replaced by a statue of Charles 1.  At nearby Charing Cross Station there is an ornate sculpture with a cross on it, erected in 1864 it was  modelled on the original Charing Cross of Edward I.  

The bronze statue of King Charles 1 is still there, located on a traffic island.  He sits astride his horse and looks towards the Houses of Parliament.  King Charles 1 was the only English king to be beheaded.  This occurred during the English Civil War in 1649.  The statue dates from around 1633 and was erected here after the restoration of the monarchy in 1675. During the Second World War this statue, as well as many others, was dismantled and hidden in a safe place until after the war. 

From the 14th to the 17th century much of the area that Trafalgar Square takes up today was in fact the courtyard of the Great Mews stabling which served Whitehall Palace. The horses and carriages of the royal household were kept here and this usage of space remained so until King George IV moved the mews to Buckingham Palace.  The site now became vacant and ripe for development. 

Construction of the Square took place in around 1812 and was called Trafalgar Square in honour of Lord Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  It was built where the Mall, Pall Mall East, St Martin’s Place, the Strand and Whitehall all meet.  The architect was the renowned John Nash and his vision was to develop a ‘new street from Charing Cross to Portland Place’ with the Square itself becoming a cultural space that can be enjoyed by the general public. 

It wasn’t until 1830 that it was officially called Trafalgar Square and slowly over the next few decades the Square began to take on the characteristics that we recognise today.  The beautiful National Gallery was opened in 1838 and stands on the former site of the King’s Mews.  The architect, William Wilkins, used eight of the columns from the demolished nearby Carlton House, former home of the Prince Regent, and these were used in the east and west portico of the gallery. 

Also in 1838, the architect Charles Barry presented his plan for the development of the Square which included  Nelson’s column and the two fountains.  The Column, which was designed by William Railton, was erected in 1843 and  the fountains built two years later.   It wasn’t until 22 years later, in 1867, that the bronze statues of Lions, designed by Sir Edwin Landseer, were placed at the foot of the Column. 

The Square has changed considerably since its beginnings 200 years ago and 2003 saw the end of an 18 month huge construction project to transform the Square.  Traffic was removed from the north side and the north terrace became wholly pedestrianised linking it firmly to the National Gallery.  The Square now includes a cafe, public toilets and a lift for disabled users who may not be able to access the square via the steps. 

Nelson’s Column

In the centre of the square is Nelson’s column, built to honour Admiral Lord Nelson and guarded by four lions. This came about when, in 1837, The Times published a letter that suggested there should be a permanent commemoration to Lord Nelson.  The Nelson Memorial Committee was formed and a competition opened for the best design.  This was won by the architect William Railton who designed the column and statue. Work began in 1840 and was finished in 1843. Initially it was called The Monument to Lord Nelson but it is now only known as Nelson’s Column.

The column is made of solid blocks of granite with a Corinthian capital of bronze. It is nearly 5m in height topped off by the sandstone statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, sculpted by Edward Hodges Baily.  Nelson is 5m high and stands on a bronze platform which was made from the old guns at Woolwich Arsenal Foundry.  He wears his Admiral’s uniform and a two-cornered hat.  His eyes are blank as one of his eyes was blinded in battle.  One of his hands rests on his sword whilst the other sleeve is empty since one arm was also lost in battle. The column is so tall that from ground level the statue looks life-sized.  It is in fact three times that.

The lions that guard the foot of the column were originally made by Thomas Milnes and carved in stone .  However, on completion, they were not thought to be impressive enough and were eventually bought by Titus Salt, where they were used to enhance the exterior of the Factory School and Victoria Hall in his village of Saltaire near Bradford, where they remain today.  The four lions that replaced these stone ones were designed by the painter Sir Edwin Landseer and were  installed later in 1868. These later lions, now known as ‘the Landseer lions’, were cast from melted bronze from the French Navy canons by Baron Marochetti in his Kensington studio. Landseer used the corpses of real lions and casts of a lion statue in Turin in his design.  Although he attempted an accurate life-like animal statue the pose of the lions is incorrect.  When a lion is lying down their backs are convex rather than the concave shape of Landseer’s lions. Legend has it that the lions will come to life if Big Ben chimes 13 times!   At the bottom of the column are four bronze panels which depict some of Nelson’s most famous battles, namely: St. Vincent, Copenhagen, The Nile, and his death scene on The Victory at Trafalgar. 

Nelson’s Column is a Grade 1 Listed structure and every two years an inspection is carried out to assess its condition.  Although recent inspections have not found any deterioration, conservation work has been carried out to ensure it remains in sound condition for future generations to enjoy. 

The Fountains

In front of the National Gallery, on the north side of the square, are the two impressive fountains that are illuminated at night with LED lights that change colour and seem to be dancing in the water.   Interestingly they were not part of the original design for the square and the fountains you see today are not the original ones that  were added  by Charles Barry (who designed the Houses of Parliament) in 1845.  The main purpose of these fountains and their basins was to discourage large gatherings and protests.  the water was supplied by two artesian wells sunk to a great depth to tap into underground streams that flowed on Orange Street behind the National Gallery and another in front of it. 

In the late 1930s the water flow became more and more unreliable and it was decided to install new fountains.  These are the ones you see today.  They were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and are fed via a new pumping system.  However they are placed in the original quatrefoil granite basins designed by Barry, including the original sculptures of mermaids, dolphins and tritons.  The original fountains are now located in Ottawa and Regina in Canada. 

Trafalgar Square’s Drinking Fountains
On the east and west sides of Trafalgar Square are public drinking fountains installed in 1960 by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association to commemorate the organisation’s centenary.
Although they fell out of use for many years, they were restored back to working order in 2009, but seem to be broken again in 2018.

Statues and Busts

In Trafalgar Square there are also various statues of well-known historical figures and a stroll around the square will enable you to get close to them.  Against the north wall of the square are several bronze busts of renowned Admirals by sculptors who were Royal Academicians. Here you can see a bust of Admiral Beatty by William McMillan RA;  a bust of  Admiral Jellicoe by Charles Wheeler RA; and a bust of Admiral Cunningham by Franta Besley.   In the Square itself are four plinths with three of them having bronze statues on them. On the south-west corner is a statue of General Sir Charles James Napier by G G Adams, on the south-east corner is one of Major General Sir Henry Havelock b W. Behnes, on the north-east corner is a bronze equestrian statue of King George IV by Sir Francis Chantery and on the fourth plinth on the north-west corner you will find a temporary modern display, merging the old and the new.  This fourth plinth was empty for many years but today is managed by a Commissioning Group Panel of specialist advisors who consider commissions for the plinth.  

Some statues that were in the Square in the past have been replaced and relocated.  For example there used to be a statue of General Charles Gordon in the centre of the square between the two fountains.  This was removed and relocated on the Victoria Embankment where it can still be seen today. Also, there used to be a tribute to Edward Jenner, the scientist who discovered vaccination, in the south-west corner next to the statue of General Sir Charles Napier.  However this was moved to Kensington Gardens in 1862 due, it is thought, to fear of anti-vaxxers. Some historians today would like to see more of a tribute to Jenner, particularly when we consider the Covid-19 pandemic and the importance of vaccination. 

Finally, one of the oddest statues in Trafalgar Square is outside the National Gallery.  It is a statue of George Washington, one time citizen of Great Britain and father of the United States. Ironically, in a square that marks one of Britain’s victories in battle is a statue that points to one of Britain’s biggest defeats.  It is built on soil shipped from the state of Virginia and the statue of Washington is leaning on 13 wooden rods  which are symbolic of the 13 colonies.  It is a replica of an original statue commissioned by Thomas Jefferson which stands in the Virginia State Capital building in Richmond VA and was presented to Britain in 1921 as a gift.   The reason that it is laid on a foundation of soil from Virginia is that George Washington vowed, after having left his country of birth, that he would never set foot on British soil again.  Those that erected the statue in 1921 wanted to ensure that Washington didn’t end up telling a lie. 

There are two other interesting features in Trafalgar Square worth looking at, one being the plaques denoting the official measurements of length using the Imperial system of measurement and the other, the smallest police box ever built. 

Imperial Measures.

The brass plates showing the Imperial Measures  were originally set into the northern terrace wall in 1876.  After the recent improvements to the square, when the central staircase was added and pedestrian access was made easier between Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, the plaques were moved slightly to the east,  just outside the cafe on the square itself.   For those who don’t know what imperial measurements are they are/were the British system of standard measurement. For example, Imperial measurements of of length use inches, feet and yards as well as more archaic units of measurement such as poles, perches and chains. 

The reason why they are there is an interesting one.  When, in 1834, the Houses of Parliament burnt down it destroyed  also all the standards of the Imperial units of measurement, which were stored there.  A Standards Commission was quickly set up and given the task of reconstructing the measurements.  To avoid such a thing happening again. the Standards Department of the Board of Trade at that time decided to duplicate the standards and located the standards of length in three different places: the Guildhall; Greenwich Royal Observatory and in Trafalgar Square. 

In 1965 Britain formerly changed from the imperial system to the metric system.  However, the imperial system is still commonly used by many people.  Some metrication has taken hold, for example the use of grams, millilitres and litres is more common that pounds and ounces, pints and gallons.  However, according to a Yougov survey in 2015 60% of young people still don’t know how much they weigh in kilograms or how tall they are in metres and centimetres (54%)

The Police Box

On the south-east corner of the square is the smallest police box ever to have been built.  A police box is a public telephone box  with a direct link to the local police station.  They were used throughout the 20th century by the police to keep in contact with the local station or for members of the public to call the police.  Most of them have now been withdrawn from service due to the introduction of mobile phones.   For Doctor Who fans, the tardis resembles a police box of the 1960s. 

The one on Trafalgar Square was built in 1926 and was built more as an observation box with a direct telephone link to Cannon Row Police Station.  It was thought necessary because of the location of the Square as a rallying point for political demonstrations.  It was also felt that a full-sized police box would be too conspicuous and perhaps add fuel to a fire of discontent, so it was kept as inobtrusive as possible. Initially a lamp had been on this site and the police box was created by hollowing out the former lampstand.  Today, the police are not so concerned with keeping a low profile so it is not required.  The structure is now used as a cleaner’s store room. 

Admiralty Arch

As noted above, Trafalgar Square has huge associations with all things nautical.  The Square itself named after a famous naval battle and many of the statuary are of Admirals, with the most famous given centre stage atop of the column.  Admiralty Arch is the curved structure with three Triumphal Arches  that lies at the southern point of Trafalgar Square.  It gives access from here, up The Mall to Buckingham Palace.  It is a Grade I Listed building completed in 1912.  It was commissioned by King Edward VII in memory of his mother Queen Victoria and the architect was Aston Webb.  It used to be the residence of the First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff which is the professional head of the Royal Navy and Naval Service. It also was used by various government offices, initially for the Admiralty, hence its name. 

Underneath the building is a warren of tunnels  vaults and rooms which were used for government offices and archives.  As part of the government’s austerity programme, the property was sold on a 125-year lease for a reported £75 million in 2012.  Planning permission has been granted to turn it into a luxury Waldorf Astoria hotel, four apartments and a private members club.  The hotel is scheduled to open in 2022.