Do you know where the very centre of the UK capital actually is? Well, the London media recently concluded it was a particular park bench just outside the transport hub that contains Victoria Overground, Underground and bus and coach stations.
Traditionally, however, it’s always been considered to be the exact spot on which stands a statue of the legendary 17th Century king of England, Scotland and Wales, Charles I (sitting on a steed). And where’s this? Why, just a few steps south of Trafalgar and north of the start of Whitehall. So, taking this orthodox spot recognised as London’s ‘centre point’ – slap-bang in the West End – here are some very nearby attractions that you simply can’t afford to miss…
(Trafalgar Square WC2N 5DN)
Should you locate your art gallery so it fills one whole side of Trafalgar Square and name it the ‘National Gallery’, you’ve pretty much got to make sure it lives up to its lofty position and title. Make no mistake, this worldwide revered venue most assuredly does. Impressive both inside and out (its frontage features a magisterial combination of neo-classical columns and portico), it’s home to some of the greatest fine art produced between the years 1250 and 1900. Among its 2,300 works you’ll find pieces courtesy of van Gogh, Monet, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Holbein, van Eyck and Constable (‘The Hay Wain’). Covering the Early Renaissance right up to Post-Impressionism then, it’s simply one of the most staggeringly complete collections you’ll ever come across. Do your research before your visit, though, because during a lunchtime every month – and sometimes at weekends – it holds talks on selected artworks. Unmissable.
National Portrait Gallery
(St. Martin’s Place WC2H 0HE)
Less famous and younger than its illustrious, heavyweight sister gallery (which it backs on to) this place may be, but don’t go thinking it’s a welterweight in the fine art world. No, for the National Portrait Gallery is absolutely the place to head if you’ve an interest in both portraiture and British history – it simply and comprehensively tells the story of UK history via around 10,000 portraits of distinguished figures, spread across four floors.
A fantastic venue to dip in and out of; the works you must check out are the iconic portraits of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I and King Charles II to be found hanging on its walls, along with the sculpture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in medieval costume and 20th/ 21st Century photo portraits of everyone from The Beatles to Richard Branson and Kate Moss to J. K. Rowling. The gift shop’s a doozy too! This blogger can attest the National Portrait Gallery’s indeed brilliant (it’s one his favourite places in the capital), so definitely worth checking out if you’ve made your place of stay West End accommodation.
(Trafalgar Square WC2N 4JJ)
The other major venue to be found in Trafalgar Square (on its northern side) and a must visit – not least if you’re staying in a hotel in West End London – is this historic 18th Century church, which over the years has become established as not just a religious hub in the heart of the city, but also an attraction for beautiful musical performances and charitable projects. Delightful candlelit concerts are hosted here each evening between Thursdays and Saturdays, while lunchtime recitals take place on Monday, Tuesday and Friday lunchtimes. And, in addition to the obligatory gift shop, there’s also a brass rubbing centre and a café in its crypt that serves traditionally English roast dinners on Sundays. Note that all profits raised from its commercial activities go to support the work of the church, with its particular mission to help the local homeless.
(Trafalgar Square SW1Y 5BJ)
Legendary British martyr, naval warfare hero and all-round iconic figure, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson is nothing short of one of Blighty’s most revered names. And nowadays his legend lives on thanks, in particular, to the 52-metre-tall monument right in the centre of Trafalgar Square atop of which stands the statue of the man himself. In fact, it’s so tall that, all the way up, Nelson’s able to gaze out on the River Thames, the very river on which not only his fleet was once moored but also down which his body travelled following his death aboard his ship during his life-defining victory in the Battle of, yes, Trafalgar. A word to the wise – stand or sit on the front steps of the National Gallery, then look out on Nelson’s Column and, beyond it, you’ll be able to see Big Ben poking above the buildings down Whitehall. Quite the sight – and selfie opportunity!
The Fourth Plinth
(Trafalgar Square WC2N 5DS)
The most recent – and dynamic – addition to the square is the temporary modern art exhibit space that’s the spot on top of its ‘Fourth Plinth’. What’s this? Well, in addition to Nelson’s Column, the bronze lions that surround it and the fountains, are four plinths at each of its corners. Ever since the square’s completion in 1841, the northwest plinth was empty, as what was intended for it (an equestrian statue celebrating Britain’s colonial heroes) wasn’t finished due to lack of funds. More than 150 years later, the authorities finally got their act together and decided to plonk on it (for between 12 and 18 months at a time) commissioned examples of contemporary sculpture.
These have ranged from a giant version of Nelson’s ship (HMS Victory) in a bottle to an enormous, bright blue cockerel to a nude statue of a pregnant artist whom was born without arms and with shortened legs. Right now, the plinth’s blessed with a huge bronze hand making a ‘thumbs up’ with an elongated thumb – it’s due to be replaced next year with a sculpture of a lamassu (a winged bull that’s a traditional Assyrian protective deity). Look out for it!