In the center of the West End is London’s only really generously proportioned square, Trafalgar Square (underground station: Charing Cross). The square is dominated by the granite Nelson’s Column, 184 feet (56 m) high. The column was completed by 1842 to the designs of Regency architect John Nash. One-armed and one-eyed, Nelson, Britain’s greatest naval hero, who died in 1805 at the battle of Trafalgar which secured the Royal Navy’s dominance of the seas for another hundred years, stands high above the bronze reliefs around its base which depict his greatest victories: Abukir on the Nile, Copenhagen, Trafalgar and St. Vincent. Four huge bronze lions gaze out from their plinths over the pigeons and tourists, while Nelson’s eye high above looks south down Whitehall, toward the equestrian Statue of Charles I (1633) at the traffic hub of Charing Cross. Here, in 129 I , Edward 1 set up the last of 13 crosses marking the route of the funeral cortege for his beloved Queen, Eleanor of Castille. On New Year’s Eve, Trafalgar Square is the arena for a huge open-air event. It’s jam-packed with people, and its two fountains, which each day spew 400,000 liters of water into the air, are switched off to ensure that none of the 50,000 revelers drowns unnoticed in their icy waters.
This famous and extremely busy square is surrounded by important buildings. To the north is the classical architecture of the National Gallery, built in 1838 to plans by Wilkins and Barry: it contains more than 2,200 paintings representing every major European school and era, from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Masterpieces ranging from the Middle Ages to Impressionism are distributed over four wings and 66 rooms (including Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, Albrecht Durer’s Father of the Artist, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne). Aids to orientation are the general plan of the museum (free of charge) or the booklet 20 Great Paintings, which provides a quick introduction to the most important works and where you can find them.
1991 saw the opening of the post-modern Sainsbury Wing (named after the donors, who also own the well-known supermarket chain), housing more than 250 works of the early Renaissance, as well as various rotating exhibitions. Behind the National Gallery, at the south end of Charing Cross Road, you will find the National Portrait Gallery with five floors of portraits of British notables from Tudor times (Henry VIII) to today (Princess Di, Paul McCartney) – not only paintings, but also sculptures and photographs.
Opposite this gallery stands the oldest building on the square, the church of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, with a steeple 183 feet (56 m) high. Wren’s pupil James Gibbs built it in 1721-26 in BaroqueClassical style on the site of the old oratory of the monks of Westminster who 500 years ago used to work here “in the fields.” St.-Martin-in-the-Fields has long been the church of the Admiralty, and since 1954 a shelter for the homeless. Music too plays an important role here: lunchtime concerts are held here at I:OS pm on weekdays (except Thursdays), and there are often candlelight concerts in the evenings. Classical music is even played in the crypt, where there is a small cafe. The Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields attained prominence under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner, is famous around the world. The church also has a Brass Rubbing Centre, where children can rub their own pictures of medieval knights.
Passing the South Africa House, you come to Whitehall, which leads to the Houses of Parliament.