Trafalgar Square is the center of England in more ways than one. At its south end lies what used to be Charing Cross, the point from which all distances to London are measured. Long since, the cross erected by Edward I in 1290 (as a tribute to his wife, Eleanor) has been replaced by a statue of Charles I atop a horse. The major construction was completed in 1845 and has enjoyed continual popularity since – sometimes to the regret of its sponsors. The large open piazza-style area is often the preferred site of political demonstrations, and has been from its beginning.
The centerpiece of the center of England is unquestionably the 185-foot column, with the 17-foot statue of Lord Nelson at its peak. This is fitting since the square itself was designed as a tribute to Nelson’s military victory of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
At the base of the column are four large bronze lions sculpted by Landseer, sitting atop huge granite plinths. (A plinth is a block of stone that serves as a base for a column or statue.) Bronze reliefs at the base depict four of Admiral Nelson’s famous battles.
Once home to large flocks of pigeons, the tower and other structures have been rejuvenated after a program to radically decrease the bird population. A program not without controversy, as they were popular with many of the tourists.
The square, apart from being the intersection for several major roadways, holds a dozen things to do and see. All around are working fountains designed in the Neo-Classical style that formed the ‘look’ of public squares for centuries.
On the north side of the square sits the National Gallery, one of the world’s premier art museums. Along with one of the richest collections of paintings, the building itself is a work of art. East of there is St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields church. On the south is Whitehall, where a visitor can see The Cenotaph (built to memorialize the Armistice in 1919).
To the west is Canada House. Visiting Canadians can use the facility to read Canadian newspapers and send or receive emails, but the classical exterior is worth a look for anyone. On the east side is South Africa House with a delightful display of African animals featured on its stone arches.
If visiting during Christmas, be sure to bundle up and come at night to see the tree lighting ceremony. A tradition since 1947, every year Norway – as an expression of gratitude for British support during WWII – sends a giant spruce or fir to London. The tree is erected and decorated and the Mayor of Oslo joins the Lord Mayor of Westminster to illuminate the tree.
Less than a mile away are several other great sights, such as the Churchill Museum and 10 Downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister since 1732. Dr. Johnson’s house (creator of the first English dictionary and a writer) is about a mile away as is the British Museum, one of the world’s largest collections of artifacts.