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Trafalgar Square, London

Trafalgar Square is a public space and tourist attraction in central London, built around the area formerly known as Charing Cross. It is in the borough of the City of Westminster. At its centre is Nelson’s Column, which is guarded by four lion statues at its base. There are a number of statues and sculptures in the square, with one plinth displaying changing pieces of contemporary art. The square is also used for political demonstrations and community gatherings, such as the celebration of New Year’s Eve.

The name commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), a British naval victory of the Napoleonic Wars over France. The original name was to have been “King William the Fourth’s Square”, but George Ledwell Taylor suggested the name “Trafalgar Square”. In the 1820s, George IV engaged the architect John Nash to redevelop the area. Nash cleared the square as part of his Charing Cross Improvement Scheme. The present architecture of the square is due to Sir Charles Barry and was completed in 1845. Trafalgar Square is owned by the Queen in Right of the Crown, and managed by the Greater London Authority, while Westminster City Council owns the roads around the square, including the pedestrianised area of the North Terrace. The square consists of a large central area with roadways on three sides, and a terrace to the north, in front of the National Gallery. The roads around the square form part of the A4 road.The square was formerly surrounded by a one-way traffic system, but works completed in 2003 reduced the width of the roads and closed the northern side to traffic.

Nelson’s Column is in the centre of the square, flanked by fountains designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1937-9 as replacements for two earlier fountains of Peterhead granite (now in Canada), and guarded by four monumental bronze lions sculpted by Sir Edwin Landseer. The column is topped by a statue of Horatio Nelson, the vice admiral who commanded the British Fleet at Trafalgar. On the north side of the square is the National Gallery and to its east St Martin-in-the-Fields church. The square adjoins The Mall entered through Admiralty Arch to the southwest. To the south is Whitehall, to the east Strand and South Africa House, to the north Charing Cross Road and on the west side Canada House.

Nelson’s Column had been planned independently of Barry’s work. In 1838 a Nelson Memorial Committee had approached the government, proposing that a monument to the victor of Trafalgar, funded by public subscription, should be erected in the square, and the government had provisionally agreed. A competition was held, the winning design, by the architect William Railton, being for a Corinthian column topped by a statue of Nelson, with an overall height of more than 200 feet, guarded by four sculpted lions. The design was approved, with the proviso that the overall height should be reduced to 170 feet, and construction began in 1840. The main construction of the column was completed, and the statue raised, in November 1843. However, the last of bronze reliefs on the pedestal of the column was not installed until May 1854, and The four lions, although part of the original design, were only added in 1867. Barry was unhappy about Nelson’s column being placed in the square. In July 1840, when its foundations had already been laid, he told a parliamentary select committee “it would in my opinion be desirable that the area should be wholly free from all insulated objects of art”

When the square was laid out in the 1840s, the fountains’ primary purpose was not aesthetic, but rather to reduce the open space available and the risk of riotous assembly. They were originally fed by water pumped from an artesian well by a steam engine sited behind the National Gallery. In the late 1930s it was decided to replace the stone basins and the pump.The new fountains were built to a design by Sir Edwin Lutyens at a cost of almost £50,000. The old fountains were bought for presentation to the Canadian government, and are now in Ottawa and Regina. The present fountains are memorials to Lord Jellicoe (western side) and Lord Beatty (eastern side).

Further restoration work became necessary and was completed by May 2009. The pump system was replaced with a new pump capable of sending an 80-foot (24 m) jet of water into the air. A new LED lighting system was also installed during this restoration to reduce the cost of lighting maintenance. The new lighting has been designed with the London 2012 Summer Olympics in mind and for the first time will project many different combinations of colours on to the fountains. The new lighting system has a much lower energy requirement and will reduce its carbon footprint by around 90%.

The square was once famous for its feral pigeons, and feeding them was a popular activity. The desirability of the birds’ presence was contentious: their droppings disfigured stonework, and the flock, estimated at its peak to be 35,000, was considered a health hazard. In 2005, the sale of bird seed in the square was stopped and other measures introduced to discourage the pigeons, including the use of trained birds of prey. Groups of supporters continued to feed the birds, but in 2003 the then-Mayor, Ken Livingstone, enacted by-laws to ban the feeding of pigeons in the square. In September 2007 Westminster City Council passed further by-laws banning the feeding of birds on the square’s pedestrianised North Terrace and other pavements in the area There are now few birds in Trafalgar Square and it is used for festivals and hired out to film companies in a way that was not feasible in the 1990’s.

For many years, revellers celebrating the start of a New Year have gathered in the square, despite a lack of civic celebrations being arranged. The lack of official events in the square was partly because the authorities were concerned that actively encouraging more party-goers would cause overcrowding. Since 2005, a firework display centred on London Eye and the South Bank of the Thames has been provided as an alternative.

There has been a Christmas ceremony at Trafalgar Square every year since 1947. A Norway Spruce (or sometimes a fir) is given by Norway‘s capital Oslo and presented as London’s Christmas tree, as a token of gratitude for Britain’s support during World War II. (Besides the general war support, Norway’s Prince Olav, as well as the country’s government, lived in exile in London throughout the war.) As part of the tradition, the Lord Mayor of Westminster visits Oslo in the late autumn to take part in the felling of the tree, and the Mayor of Oslo then comes to London to light the tree at the Christmas ceremony.

Nearest London Underground stations:

  • Charing Cross – Northern and Bakerloo Lines—has an exit in the square. The two lines originally had separate stations, of which the Bakerloo Line one was called Trafalgar Square; they were linked and renamed in 1979 as part of the construction of the Jubilee Line, which was later rerouted to Westminster tube station in late 1999.
  • Embankment – District, Circle, Northern and Bakerloo Lines.
  • Leicester Square – Northern and Piccadilly lines

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