Trafalgar Square is often “the place to be”, especially on special occasions like Chinese New Year or the celebrations for London’s winning bid for the 2012 Olympics. It’s also often a focus for political demonstrations, like anti-war protests or the rally that sparked the ‘Poll Tax’ riots 20 years ago.
But beyond these huge events and the many cafes, art museums and cultural monuments nearby, what lies beneath the immediately visible surface of Trafalgar Square?
Its beginnings can be found roughly two centuries ago, when King George IV commissioned the architect John Nash to redevelop the area.
Nash envisioned “a new street from Charing Cross to Portland Place … forming an open square in the Kings Mews opposite Charing Cross.”
This square was eventually designed and completed by Charles Barry, the architect who designed the Houses of Parliament.
Prior to this, the area on which it stands was home to the Royal Mews, or King’s Stables since the 14th century. This facility was relocated to the grounds of Buckingham Palace, where it remains to this day.
Ever since its conception, Trafalgar Square has been a centre for public life in London and is also quite literally the centre of the city. At the south end of the square, where a statue of King Charles I now stands, you will find a plaque which reads as follows:
“On the site now occupied by the statue of King Charles I was erected the original Queen Eleanor’s cross, a replica of which stands in front of Charing Cross station. Mileages from London are measured from the site of the original cross.”
At the far end of the square, outside the National Gallery, you will also find replicas of the original imperial measurements (which are to be found at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich) used to designate the length of an inch, a foot and a yard, in the form of bronze plaques set into the terrace.
At the centre of the square – atop a granite column almost 50 metres high – is the imposing statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson. It’s difficult to miss but a closer look reveals more detail than one might catch at first glance.
It was built in 1840 to commemorate Nelson’s heroic death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (after which the square is named).
The four giant bronze panels set into the pedestal are made from melted down French cannons captured at four of Nelson’s great naval victories.
Part of the base was further ornamented using two dozen cannons recovered from the sunken British ship HMS Royal George, sister ship to Nelson’s flag ship, the HMS Victory.
Most recently, Trafalgar Square was home to a daring art experiment created by Antony Gormley. This was known as One & Other: members of the public took turns to stand atop the square’s unoccupied fourth statue plinth, for an hour at a time over a period of a hundred days.
The plinth was built in 1841 but no funds were left for the planned statue of William IV. It has lacked a permanent occupant ever since.
Prominent among these is The Grand at Trafalgar Square, ranking well within the top 100 London hotels on TripAdvisor and offering decent rooms and service at surprisingly good prices given its prime location.