Tour 6 Trafalgar Square
From Victoria station take an 11 or 24 bus to Trafalgar Square and walk a short distance to the centre of London where our sixth tour begins. Road distances to London are measured from a plaque on the ground by the statue of King Charles I at the junction of the Strand, Whitehall and Cockspur Street, under the shadow of Nelson’s column. On that spot stood the original Eleanor’s Cross which starts this tour. We proceed from there via St Martin-in-the-fields to the statue of Edith Cavell, the National Portrait Gallery and, round the corner, the National Gallery. Descending from there onto Trafalgar Square we view the imperial measures. The tour ends at London’s ‘greatest sight’ in many reckonings, Nelson’s column.
Turn right out of St Martin’s where stands the 40 foot statue of British nurse Edith Cavell famous for helping soldiers in German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. She did this without discrimination and also helped 200 soldiers escape to Britain for which she was arrested. She faced a firing squad on 12 October 1915, an execution condemned round the world. The German defence was that making her an exception would cause a surge in women acting against them. Cavell’s last words partly on the plinth are ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone…my soul, as I believe, is safe, and I am glad to die for my country’.
National Portrait Gallery
Cross from Edith Cavell’s statue and take free entry into the National Portrait Gallery. Founded in 1856, its aim is ‘to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and ... to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media’. The Gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world with over 210,000 works from the 16th Century to the present day. Take the lift to the top floor and walk down following the free displays in historical sequence or prepare a tour online in advance on a favourite subject.
Not one free London sight but potentially 2,300 sights visiting the world famous National Gallery provides a window into classical art down the centuries. It’s opening in 1838 followed a decision to situate the collection in Trafalgar Square, a place accessible ‘by the rich in their carriages from the west of London, and on foot by the poor from the East End’. Open every day it provides free access for all. In its rooms you can enjoy Venice with Canaletto, be pointed heavenwards through the sacred art of Leonardo Da Vinci or have your day brightened by Van Gogh’s sunflowers. There are free tours, lectures and seminars that help you savour the Gallery’s riches.
Descend the steps from the National Gallery onto Trafalgar Square proper and you walk over a sight of London most people miss. The series of small brass plaques were quite recently moved from being adjacent to the Gallery when the forecourt was installed. Tourists unwittingly walk over the standard Imperial or Trafalgar measures of the length of a perch, a pole, a chain or a yard. Kept in Parliament the old wooden measures were lost in a fire they actually caused in 1834 which led to Parliament’s rebuilding. In 1876 brass measures were installed in Trafalgar Square with copies at Guildhall and Greenwich. Since the UK completed a transition to metric units in 1995 the Imperial Measures are history in another sense.
Adolf Hitler’s plan to conquer Britain included removing this great imperial symbol to Berlin. The 51.6 metre (169 ft 3in) Dartmoor granite column was built 1840-3 to commemorate Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His graphic death in the Napoleonic Wars is depicted on one of the four brass panels at the bottom adjacent to the famous lions added in 1867. The British naval victory at Cape Trafalgar off the coast of Spain is source of the dedication of the nation’s most famous public space. Trafalgar Square is site of much revelling, celebrating and demonstrating as when on 18 April 2016 Greenpeace activists climbed the column and placed a breathing mask on Nelson to protest against air pollution.