"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Travel Report: Trafalgar Square, London.

The history of Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square, London.

May 2019.

Cover photo by David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

It was a grey afternoon in London when I arrived at one of the English capital’s most iconic and historic public squares. It felt surreal to be back here. Indeed I have vague memories of running among the pigeons as a kid. And leading Belgian English language students from statue to statue back in the summer of 2003. How could that all be so long ago?

That’s just a splash in the ocean of course when one considers the history of Trafalgar Square itself. In the 13th century King Edward I developed the unused land into the Royal Mews, a compound of stables that housed horses, hawks and a number of royal carriages and coaches.

King Edward I of England.

King Edward I (1272-1307).

The Mews grew and developed under the subsequent reigns of Richard II and Henry VII before George IV moved everything over to Buckingham Palace. Much of the old stables site is now occupied by the handsome National Gallery, which invites visitors to “explore the story of European art”. Inside you can see original works by the likes of Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Turner and Renoir.

Trafalgar Square, London.

The National Gallery Trafalgar Square London

The National Gallery, London.

However, outside the gallery, particularly on the steps, it’s not unusual to see homeless people. Some come for handouts from tourists, others use it as a sleeping spot.

That day, as I passed by, paramedics were helping an unfortunate soul into the back of an ambulance. It was a stark reminder of the disparity between London’s obscene wealth and privilege and those who have next to nothing.

Trafalgar Square, London.

Visit Trafalgar Square in London.

Trafalgar Square, London.

With the stables gone, an ambitious redevelopment project began on the land that would become today’s square. For those who’ve been following my London chronicles, some familiar names crop up. In 1826 John Nash (see my piece on The Regent’s Park) jumped onboard as lead architect, but died early on during construction.

As a result, Charles Barry (Westminster Bridge, Parliament Square) took over until the square’s completion in 1840. A government committee, with the blessing of Queen Victoria, decided that the square should be named after The Battle of Trafalgar, which saw The British Royal Navy defeat Napoleon’s French and Spanish fleets.

Adventures in London.

Battle of Trafalgar painting Clarkson Frederick Stanfield

Shit going down at The Battle of Trafalgar. A painting by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, 1805.

The man who led Britain to this magnificent victory was Admiral Horatio Nelson. In fact, you may have heard of him. Widely regarded as one of the greatest naval leaders in history, it wasn’t enough to simply name Trafalgar Square after Nelson’s great victory. After all, the poor guy lost his life in the battle three hours after being shot onboard HMS Victory.

Nelson's Column on Trafalgar Square in London

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square.

Photo courtesy of David Castor.

Thus a grand, 52-metre corinthian-style granite column was built in his honour. Construction began in 1840 and finished three years later, unveiled as Nelson’s Column. It is so high, it’s actually quite tricky to pick out the details of Nelson’s statue at the top. The sculptor Edward Hodges Bailey carved it from Scottish sandstone.

Lord Nelson Statue Trafalgar Square London

Trafalgar Square, London.

Photo courtesy of Beata May.

Four stunning bronze lion statues sit spread around the base of the column. Installed nearly 27 years later in 1867, The Landseer Lions take their name from the artist Edwin Landseer, who specialised in animal paintings.

Edwin Henry Landseer British painter and sculptor

Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873).

Keen to have the lions represent Nelson’s heroism, Landseer spent ten years making the beasts! Moreover, he apparently melted down the bronze from cannons seized onboard actual French and Spanish ships from The Battle of Trafalgar! Somehow this sounded like an old wive’s tale to me, but if it’s true, that’s pretty extraordinary.

The Landseer Lions.

One of the Trafalgar Square lions.

Trafalgar Square, London.

Tourists often climb up on the lions for photos. Amazingly, this has never been banned and is still allowed today. Looking up at one of the lions that day and suddenly a clear memory came flooding back.

It was July 2003 and I had hauled myself up for a photo of my own. Furthermore, I felt certain I still had the shot somewhere. Eventually, after some digging through my archives, I found the photograph in question. Forgive me, dear readers, for the blonde highlights. The folly of youth and all that.

Hanging out with a Landseer Lion Trafalgar Square July 2003.

Trafalgar Square, London.

Leafing through the square’s history online and I was surprised to read about a suffragette bombing that took place on the 4th of April 1914. The bomb exploded in St Martin’s in-the-Fields Church at Trafalgar’s northeast corner. It blew out the windows and caused a fire, but only resulted in a few injuries. Mainly passers-by, who were hit with shards of broken glass.

Lunch on the steps of Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square, London.

For the most part the last 107 years have proved much more peaceful. While it has become yet another popular spot for protests and rallies, Trafalgar Square is chiefly a place for lunching office workers, curious tourists and aspiring/established artists.

Some of the street art is deceptively simple. This one, for example, asks visitors to place a coin on their country’s flag to give an overview of where the day’s tourist traffic has come from.

Trafalgar Square, London.

Place a coin on your flag Trafalgar Square London

Trafalgar Square, London.

Next I got chatting to Darren, a self-confessed “semi-homeless” man who adds a fresh chalk creation every 3-4 days, depending on the weather. His somewhat abstract piece didn’t move me much, though I did have a chuckle at his scrawled message:  Please lord, don’t let it rain. Let me earn a bob or two.

When I asked him what his piece was about he just shrugged. “Oh, I dunno… it’s just an expression innit? I usually make it up as I go along and see what comes out”.

Street artist Trafalgar Square London

Trafalgar Square, London.

On any given day you might find a caricature artist or two doing their thing. I’ve always been a bit baffled by how popular this seems to be, wherever I am around the world. Nevertheless, this man was in popular demand that day. For a ten minute sketch he charges £5, while a full caricature is £8.

Caricature artist Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square, London.

The most memorable artist appeared in the form of a creepy white rabbit called Dwight. Set before him, a series of white placards asking the kinds of questions sightseers probably don’t want to think about while they’re on holiday. Company workers on their lunch breaks even less I’d imagine.

Are you living your life? Or is your life living you?

Are you working to live? Or are you living to work?

Is your government fighting terrorism? Or is it creating terrorism? 

Dwight the Rabbit.

The White Rabbit Trafalgar Square London

Trafalgar Square, London.

The first two questions, at least, I could happily answer, and with some degree of quiet satisfaction. Dwight’s presentation is part of something called The Seedling Project, in which he tries to “plant seeds of consciousness in all humankind”. 

The Seedling Project.

To find out more about issues related to terrorism, work/life balance, the environment, education and big corporations, Dwight urges us all to “follow The White Rabbit”. At the time of writing he has 397 Facebook followers and hasn’t posted since March 2021. In these troubled times, I do hope he’s ok and isn’t too disillusioned with the state of the world. If you see him on Trafalgar Square, say hi from me.

Trafalgar Square painting by James Pollard.

Trafalgar Square, London. A painting by James Pollard.

For more on my home city, why not delve through my many reports from across London.

Or maybe search further afield with my articles from all around England.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • WanderingCanadians

    It’s always fun to learn more about the history of a place when you’re visiting it. That old picture of you by the lion made my day. I’m glad you dug it out!!

    December 1, 2021 - 1:27 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha thanks. I was so glad it was still knocking around so I could throw it into this article.

      December 1, 2021 - 2:01 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    Great post! I love the mix of history, nostalgia, and current events

    December 1, 2021 - 2:26 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Lyssy, I try not to let the historical stuff weigh these pieces down, so to speak. Happy December! It’ll be Christmas before we know it.

      December 1, 2021 - 3:01 pm Reply
      • Lyssy In The City

        Happy December! I’m excited to finally dig into my chocolate advent calendar 😂🎅🏻❄️🎄

        December 1, 2021 - 3:14 pm
  • kagould17

    A good lesson on the area Leighton. We have been here a few times and it always hurts our necks to look up at Nelson. The question is why did such a short man get put on such a tall column. Obviously, his exploits made him big in stature. We were lucky enough to tour the Victory when we visited Portsmouth. Love the old photo. I often look back at my early days and wonder “What was I thinking”. Thanks for sharing. Have a great day. Allan

    December 1, 2021 - 2:34 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Allan, I agree that Nelson’s column is quite unsatisfactory in that respect. In fact, it’s almost impossible to get a decent view of Nelson. I would LOVE to see Victory one day and indeed Portsmouth would be a fun place to explore.

      December 1, 2021 - 3:03 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    I love these old paintings … when was the first camera invented (somewhere in the 1800s)? Before the good old camera, some artists had to work very hard to recreate a scene – look at that painting from the Battle of Trafalgar (it’s quite something)! Oh, that photo of you and the lion … those were the days (Berto said he saved a lot of money to get some highlights in his hair – it was in the late 1980s … well, now he’s got natural highlights 😄). Another great post – the history you pass on is always fun to read!

    December 1, 2021 - 3:12 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha, I’m just trying to imagine this blog of mine where, in lieu of photos, I had to paint each individual image with my own hands. What a sorry blog Leighton Travels would be. Glad to know I’m not alone in the folly of highlights, maybe Berto pulled them off better than I did. Thanks for reading!

      December 1, 2021 - 3:31 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Always enjoy the history lessons. I knew almost nothing except that there was a statue of Nelson there. Didn’t realize the column was so tall. In addition to making me smile at the blond image of you, the photo really shows how massive the lions are. You always provide perspective.

    December 1, 2021 - 4:14 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Those blonde highlights were done in Bratislava, don’t you know. So that photo would’ve been taken just a month after we all parted ways.

      December 1, 2021 - 5:22 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    Love learning about the history of Trafalgar, most of which I didn’t know. I had often wondered about the lions but never bothered to look it up. Thanks for the retro photo! Maggie

    December 1, 2021 - 6:29 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Maggie, I reckon the lions alone make Trafalgar Square worth the visit.

      December 1, 2021 - 6:38 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    My son’s men & boys choir visited London in the late 90s, and like you, they had a ball chasing the pigeons which were everywhere then. I like the square’s look much better now.

    December 1, 2021 - 7:24 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah those pigeons were out of control, hence the big cleanup. It’s a handsome enough square, but with knowing the history perhaps nothing truly special at first glance.

      December 1, 2021 - 7:59 pm Reply
      • salsaworldtraveler

        The history represented by the square and its surroundings is impressive. I really liked your photo of Nelson’s Column with Big Ben in the background. Next time I’d like to see the National Gallery.

        December 1, 2021 - 10:49 pm
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Another interesting piece on a much visited London landmark Leighton. There was a quiz on TV recently and one question was ‘what is Nelson holding on the top of the column’. There were four choices and despite having passed through the square hundreds of times I got it wrong! I thought it must be a telescope because he was an admiral but no, it was a sword! Think I must need to get my eyes tested!!

    December 1, 2021 - 7:42 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      You know, before putting this article together, I wouldn’t have known either. It was only once I found close up photos of his statue that I saw that. Thanks for reading Marion and for adding to the thread.

      December 1, 2021 - 8:04 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    I really love how you combine the interesting history, a more current state of things, and the art and artists that find a space there. Seems a shame to have a statue of such an important historical figure so high that no one can really see it. Why is Nelson missing a hand on the statue?

    December 1, 2021 - 7:45 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Well spotted Meg! It’s actually a whole arm missing under that cloth, if I remember well. *a few minutes pass* Ah yes, Wikipedia confirms that Nelson had his right arm amputated in July 1797 during a doomed assault on the Spanish island of Tenerife. Hit, apparently, by a musket ball. That’s gotta hurt.

      December 1, 2021 - 8:12 pm Reply
      • grandmisadventures

        Oh that sounds painful! I think he is someone I want to read more about.

        December 1, 2021 - 9:46 pm
  • Rebecca

    During my blur of a time in London in 2015, I honestly can’t recall if I ever passed through Trafalgar Square… All the same, it’s fascinating just how rich its history is throughout the centuries, especially within such a contained space of the square itself! Taking the time to go from square to square is really like flipping through pages of momentous events in time, and this makes me more mindful to do just that on future travels.

    December 2, 2021 - 5:30 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I agree wholeheartedly. And London seems like the perfect city to undertake such a project. I very much hope to add another string of historic spots when/if we finally realize our 6 month England trip. Sladja’s visa is in and all we can do is wait. And hope the world doesn’t spiral out of control again.

      December 2, 2021 - 9:49 am Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    Somehow it gives one hope to know that cannons were melted down to make those lion sculptures, glad to know that! A good history lesson of a monumental square. Dwight the white rabbit made me pause (paws?) and think.

    December 7, 2021 - 1:56 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I worry for Dwight a little as his social media activity totally died out during the pandemic. Hope he’s ok, thanks for reading Ruth!

      December 7, 2021 - 8:33 am Reply
      • rkrontheroad

        I’m touched by your concern. Hopefully, he’s moved on to better things.

        December 7, 2021 - 3:59 pm

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