Monday, 28 May 2012

Trafalgar Square -- a beautiful grey colour

It's my view that London has an intense beauty in the sunshine. It's not necessarily a beauty that everyone would recognise; not all people are enamoured with high rise buildings or overwhelming crowds or long angry queues of traffic. But somehow the sunshine adds vibrancy and life to this sometimes grey and foreboding metropolis. In the warm glow of an early summer's day, I watched London today, and I can't deny it. I love it.

In the centre of London, virtually smack where you'd stick the needle if you were an overseas visitor deciding to hit London and see the sights, is Trafalgar Square. Its unmistakeable landmark column, with Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson standing atop, commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, and Nelson's other campaigns. This battle was fought in 1805 and was a decisive naval victory for the British fleet in the ongoing Napoleonic wars. Nelson himself, serving aboard the HMS Victory, was mortally wounded in the battle, and thus lives large in the British psyche in that way that gallant dead people do.

Trafalgar Square is itself a grey place, with impressively grand buildings surrounding it, notably the National Gallery (housing as fine a collection as you will see in any gallery anywhere on the planet), as well as Canada House. Also, there is South Africa House, once the subject of many anti-apartheid protests, but happily these days a less controversial tenant of London's West End. Meanwhile, the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is near one corner of the gallery, at the southern end of Charing Cross Road. Here can be heard rousing classical concerts if you time your visit right, but buy a cushion if you're planning to sit through Wagner's Ring cycle as the wooden seats can numb one's behind.

The grey of Trafalgar Square first began appearing in London in the 1820s, when John Nash was commissioned by King George IV to redevelop the area then housing the Kings Mews and Green Mews (where the National Gallery now stands). The square itself opened in 1845, designed by Sir Charles Barry, although modifications to plinths and fountains found their way into the square as you stand in it today.

File:Trafalgar Square, London 2 - Jun 2009.jpg
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
In 1843, the William Railton designed memorial to Nelson was completed. It was topped off by E H Bailey's statue, made of Craigleith sandstone. The whole thing is 169 feet 3 inches (or just about 51.6 metres) tall, to the tip of Nelson's hat. Some time later, in 1867, Sir Edwin Landseer's lions were added to the base of the column.
File:Trafalgar Square-2.jpg
Picture by David Castor

Perhaps the most important thing about Trafalgar Square, though, is what it has in common with other squares in many of the world's great cities. It is a place of the people; it is where people go when they need to go somewhere, and today, in London's sunshine, it was like that. It was a riot of colour, and the grey is simply a backdrop, or a frame. It bustled with tourists and Londoners alike, just busy, doing their thing. But I have seen it when there were real riots and protests. I have seen movies made there, with casts of strangely horrific injured people, perhaps reenacting a scene from the Battle of Trafalgar itself. I have been there when there have been concerts and political speakers, all of which bring the square alive and straight up to date. Every year, Norway sends us a gift of a Christmas Tree, which is annually sited in Trafalgar Square for everyone to enjoy. It's a place where people go to do things, to get involved.

Perhaps you're coming to London soon, maybe for a business trip, maybe for a holiday, or perhaps you are going to join us for the Olympics. When you're here, you should pay Trafalgar Square a visit. It's not just simply about being a tourist. It's about visiting a major cultural centre. It's an important place.

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