Trafalgar Square Redux 3 – “hidden in plain sight”

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

Story time. History time.

Streets Ahead.


It’s January 16th, 2024.

And so today I’ve come up with an acronym for the way this rolls out.


Stands for Pin. Random. Ongoing.

The P is today’s news headline. Well, one of them. London Calling is in some respects a diary. The pin is a connector. Think of a leash. I’m at one end of the leash nosing around in this, that, or the other of London history or a London locale. The other end of the leash is pinned to the big story, the here and now, what most minds – in London at any rate – were lit up with when I was poking around in the past.

Anyway, the pin for today – January 16th, 2024 – and I seriously am trying to say this without indulging my every instinct to feel a little bit smug – anyway, the pin for today is the Arctic cold snap bringing more snow and ice across much of the UK. I say that from Kanifinolhu in the Maldives where the big news is a groundsman walking across the finest sandy white beach I’ve ever set eyes on to a palm tree, going up the palm tree with just his hands and feet and then at frond level – maybe 25 feet up – reaching for the machete in his belt and committing some horriffic violence. Cutting down, pruning – without mercy – a dead branch. This under blue skies and in tee shirt and shorts temperatures. 27 degrees centigrade.

And I notice in passing that the groundsman’s shirt and shorts is colour coordinated with the backdrop – it’s all of 40 yards away – of the Indian Ocean. Dark blue shorts and a turquoise blue shirt. Exactly like the reef-generated stripes of the sea I’m looking at.

Ok. That’s the pin.

Here’s the random. I said these randoms will mostly be London-connected but I reserve the right to go off-piste. And off-piste is well and truly where I’ve gone with today’s Random. Say hello to Sea Turtles in the Maldives. These individuals can hold their breath from four to seven hours. And the temperature of the nest determines a hatchling sea turtle’s gender. Warm temperatures produce females, cool temperatures produce males. Yin and Yang.

But is that really off-piste? Because my Ongoing – P-R-O – pin, random, ongoing – my Ongoing at the moment is Trafalgar Square. And on the east side of Trafalgar Square is South Africa House, also known as Golden Cross House. (Aside here, that name, Golden Cross, is, as stories go, the dazzler of dazzlers – it burns so bright you almost can’t look directly at it. And yes, it’ll get its turn as an Ongoing in this Trafalgar Square series.) Anyway, across the way, over there on the west side of Trafalgar Square is Canada House, home of the Canadian High Commission. For good measure, the very first Malaysian High Commission – set up shop in Trafalgar Square. South Africa, Canada, Malaysia in Trafalgar Square – all of them represented in Trafalgar Square and all of them pretty exotic – so maybe that’s not so off Piste after all.

But let’s get properly to our main course – our Ongoing – Trafalgar Square.

And here’s a given, a first principle, for you. The more you know about something, the interesting it is. It’s a fairly regular occurrence these days – they might as well be wearing a tee shirt emblazoned with the legend – “I’m breathtakingly ignorant” – it’s a fairly regular occurrence, people asking, “who’s the guy at the top of the column in Trafalgar Square?” Or, worse, “who’s the guy at the top of Nelson’s column?” Educationally, we live in fallen times. Cut from the same cloth is that recent comment by an American pundit that “2/3rds of Americans don’t have a clue who Napoleon was.”

Anyway, the more you know about something the more interesting it is. So, this, our 3rd episode in the Trafalgar Square redux series, let’s weigh anchor by sifting the sand of the name Trafalgar Square through our fingers. As I said at the start of the London Walks book, to see London, you have to hear it.

So, Trafalgar Square. And what do you know, we have the Arabs to thank for the place name Trafalgar. Yes, it’s of Arabic origin. It originally meant Cape of the cave or Cape of the laurel. Or simply, Cape of the West. So, a cape in the western part of Spain. A cape where there was a cave. A cape where there were some laurel trees.

A laurel is of course an evergreen shrub or little tree. There’s a rather bigger tree isn’t there in Trafalgar Square. A mighty tree. A tree made of stone. Nelson’s column. But not so fast dissing that little laurel tree or bush. It’s an evergreen. I don’t need to spell out the significance of that. But I am going to spell out the use to which the branches of the laurel were put. They were used to weave wreaths and crowns that were symbols of Victory. Trafalgar. The Cape of the laurel. Nelson. The victor at the Battle of Trafalgar. And his ship, HMS Victory. See what a difference a little bit of knowledge makes.

The last episode of the London Walks Trafalgar Square series was subtitled: The Death of Nelson.

For this episode I want you to imagine the immediate aftermath of that battle. And standing there in Trafalgar Square, I want you to imagine that you’re standing on the main deck of HMS Victory. And what’s there that helps us to see the Square as the main deck of the great ship. Well, the quarter deck is there, if you know where to look. We’ll visit the quarter deck in a future episode. And the main mast is there. That’s easy isn’t it. It’s Nelson’s column. More on it in a minute. And some of the rigging. We’re going up there in a future engagement.

And, yes, we have to acknowledge the big obvious stuff that leads us astray, makes us forget we’re on the deck of the greatest British warship of them all. I’m talking about the fountains and the statues and the lions. Forget them for the time being. But don’t forget that the lions cast in bronze that came from French and Spanish ships that were defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar.

But first, the column. It’s just under 170 feet high. That’s from the top of Nelson’s hat down to the pavement. That’s said to be the distance from HMS Victory’s main masthead to the quarterdeck. As phallic symbols go, it takes some beating. Forgive this vulgarian lapse but beating might be the mot juste. For those who know there’s a spot about halfway along the Strand where if you look back Nelson’s hand on the hilt of his sword, jutting upward and forward, it looks, well, priapic. The admiral looks to be in a state of considerable arousal.

What is it about that particular totem, the hold it has on our culture and imaginations? And in this area in particular. Remember, we’re right on the edge of royal London. And monarchy too has its phallic symbols. I’m thinking of course about the sceptre. We had a guide who once, talking about Big Ben, loosed on his group the Freudian slip, the phallus of Westminster. When he meant of course the Palace of Westminster.

But anyway, there at the other end of the Strand you had the tallest Maypole in London. It stood in front of St Mary le Strand, the westernmost of the two island churches.

And as long as we’re at it, let us not forget that the Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, fully intended to perform a penectomy on London. Fancy word, penectomy, it means the surgical removal of a penis. Hitler was going to saw Nelson’s column off at the base, ship it to Berlin and re-erect it there. He was going to spring it. Springtime for Hitler. I mean, dictators, they are ridiculous as well as being monstrous.

What else? Well, it is worth repeating that Nelson’s statue is facing the Admiralty, facing the general direction of Plymouth, and the direction of Cape Trafalgar in Spain.

Little known facts about the column. Inside it are 168 spiral steps. Spiral steps – I warned you – this series does whorls in and around Trafalgar Square.

And a red letter London date – who knows, this one might get the full treatment if I revive the on this Day in London History series – on October 23, 1843, fourteen people dined on top of Nelson’s column. The column was nearing completion, the statue had yet to be erected, so why not. They dined on rump steak. Dined on. They were not waited on. No waiter was going up there. The steaks were hoisted up by a pulley system.

And capstans are a kind of pulley system. The Victory had two capstans. The main capstan and the jeer capstan. Good word, capstan. It’s cognate with captive and capture and capable. Comes from a proto-IndoEuropean root meaning grasp. Capstans were hardly less important than the Victory’s guns. They were used to raise the anchors. Each anchor weighed two tons. Each anchor cable weighs four and half tons. So, yes, that’s a six-and-a-half ton load. A six-and-a-half-ton load that had to be lifted manually. Each capstan could take 12 capstan bars. Each bar had space for six men. The capstan itself was like a huge drum, with those bars sticking out of it. So that’s 144 men moving in a clockwise direction, pushing on those bars, to turn the capstan and raise the anchor.

Now I want you to look at a hidden in plain sight feature of Trafalgar Square. See those drum-shaped structures here and there on the square. Yes, they’re miniature capstans. They evoke – quietly but eloquently – that chapter in the life of the great floating fortress that was the Victory.

And finally, the shiver up the spine detail. Only to be seen with binoculars. Nelson’s column has been struck with lightning just once. The lightning bolt hit the front of the top of Nelson’s left shoulder. Exactly the spot where the French sniper’s musket ball struck the Admiral. Are you shaking your head in wonder? If you’re not, you should be. I mean, how eerie, how weird is that. When I found that out it was – well, it was like a musket ball that tore through my imagination, tore through some of my darkest dreams. Darkest dreams about just how strange life, death, history, this world, experience, the alignment of the stars can be.


You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from –

home of London Walks,

London’s signature

walking tour company.

London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size

walking tour company.

And as long as we’re at it,

London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything.

It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science:

you get what you pay for.

And just as surely,

you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started

we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question:

Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world?

You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world

you do whatever you have to do

to attract and keep

the best guides in London –

you want them guiding for you,

not for somebody else.

Bears repeating:

the way we’re structured –

a guides’ cooperative –

is the key to the whole thing.

It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following,

a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases

distinguished professionals:

By way of example, Stewart Purvis, the former Editor

(and subsequently CEO) of Independent Television News.

And Lisa Honan, who had a distinguished career as a diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of St Helena, the island where Napoleon breathed his last and, some say, had his penis amputated –

Napoleon didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa –

both of them CBEs –

are just a couple of our headline acts.

Or take our Ripper Walk. It’s the creation of  the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, the author of the definitive book on the subject.  Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald is, in the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z,“internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” Donald’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper Walk. He curates the walk. He trains up and mentors our Ripper Walk guides. Fields any and all questions they throw at him.

The London Walks All-Star team of guides includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes the Chair of the Association of Professional Tour Guides. And the former chair of the Guild of Guides.

It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians,

university professors,

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company actors,

a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)…

well, you get the idea.

As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament,

every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar

and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…

come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.

And that’s by way of saying, Good walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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