If you’re planning to take a London bus tour around the capital, Trafalgar Square is going to play a big part in your day. Not only is it one of the most famous and unmissable London attractions, but it’s also a place where loads of bus tours start and end, including the Classic London Bus Tour. But what’s so special about this old square anyway? Isn’t it just, well, a square? Oh absolutely not! It’s one of the most important landmarks in London, and here’s why.
So historic it hurts!
Trafalgar Square, as it is now, was opened in 1844. In terms of London history, that’s not very old at all, but there’s some hidden history here that makes it extra fitting that there are statues of lions in it.
When building work was being done on the square in the 1950s, some deposits that were found were tested and the results were quite surprising. There were the remains of rhinos, elephants, hippos and cave lions - all many tens of thousands of years old. If you wanted to see animals like that in London nowadays, you’d have to go to London Zoo!
A square that started in the sea
Trafalgar Square is named after the Battle of Trafalgar, which saw the British fighting Spanish and French forces back in 1805 as part of the Napoleonic Wars.
But this battle didn’t take place in London; in fact, it didn’t even take place on land. Instead, it happened all the way out in the Atlantic Ocean, near a place called Cape Trafalgar.
There were 27 British ships, and 33 French and Spanish ships, but still the British navy won the battle and lost no ships at all, while the French and Spanish lost 22 ships. This was all thanks to the leadership of Admiral Lord Nelson, who was shot and killed during the battle.
The new public space was called Trafalgar Square as a reminder of the victory, and there’s also a monument right in the centre of the Square - a tall pole structure with statues around it - which is called Nelson’s Column in honour of Admiral Lord Nelson.
However, the pigeons in the Square didn’t think much of it, and Nelson's column had to be repaired in 2006 because of all the pigeon poop that had damaged it. It’s now illegal to feed pigeons in the Square to try and stop them doing it again.
Argh! Real lions! (almost)
There are four lions around Nelson’s column, and these are made of bronze. They were made by putting casts around the bodies of real lions (which were dead at the time – much less dangerous) so they’re exactly to scale. That’s why it’s fun to get up close to them if you want to know what it would be like to stand next to a real lion.
Originally the lions were made of stone, but they weren’t thought to be quite right for Trafalgar Square, so the stone ones now sit in the Yorkshire model village of Saltaire where they guard Victoria Hall.
There are three other bronze statues around the Square on their own plinths, and these are Major General Sir Henry Havelock, King George IV, and General Charles James Napier. See if you can tell which is which without cheating and looking at the inscriptions.
A fourth plinth has been empty for many years, so now it’s used for temporary works of art, chosen by the Mayor of London's Fourth Plinth Commission.
The world’s loneliest police box?
Trafalgar Square has long been used for lots of public gatherings, protests and the like, so it's no surprise there’s a police box just big enough to hold one police officer to keep an eye on things. This was built in 1826 as a lamp, and turned into a police box in 1926 with a light and a telephone.
These days it’s only used for storage by the Square’s cleaners, but take a trip to find it and see if you can imagine what it would be like to be the police officer inside it.