Love London Part 2. Trafalgar Square, George IV, Victorian generals and the Fourth plinth.

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The painting above is of the NE corner of Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 1888.  It hangs in Tate Britain and it is by William Logsdail. In case you missed it, the first part of my paean to Trafalgar Square is here: Love London, Part 1. Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column and Charles I, London WC2.

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On the lower northern wall of the square are busts of three First Admirals of the fleet; Cunningham,  Jellicoe and Beatty. Admiral Andrew Cunningham was distinguished veteran of WWII and his bust was added after the other two in 1967. Jellicoe and Beatty are Admirals of WWI and their busts were placed in 1948, facing Nelson, “Hero of the fleet”. I hope it is true that they both admired Nelson as much as they are supposed to, because upon their deaths, in late 1935 and early 1936, they were both entombed in St Paul’s Cathedral, also facing his tomb.

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Also on the lower northern wall of square is an often overlooked historical treasure “The Trafalgar Square Standards”. They are low down along the steps and in the wall behind the seats. These were the official British Imperial measurements of length until we adopted the metric units of measurement in 1995. These were set into stone, by the Standards Department of The Board of Trade, in 1876 and if you suspected that any measuring implements were incorrect you could bring them here to settle the argument. There are three sets of these official standards, the others are in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and in the Great Hall of the Guildhall in the city. The official measures included are; the inch, foot, yard, link, chain, perch and pole.

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There are four plinths built to contain statues in the square. The two on the south side of the square contain statues of Victorian Major Generals, Napier and Havelock. They both served with distinction in the campaigns in India. The third plinth is occupied by an equestrian statue of George IV. It was commissioned by the King himself and depicts him riding bareback, without stirrups and in ancient Roman dress. He intended it to be placed on the top of the Marble Arch, but it was put here in 1843.

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The fourth plinth was intended to hold a statue of William IV. It was empty for over 150 years until 1999 when it was decided to put a succession of works of art on the plinth, each occupying it for a limited amount of time. These art pieces have generated a great deal of debate over that past twenty years and, in that respect, the concept has certainly been a success. All of them have been controversial, most of them have been innovative and some of them have been attractive. Among the more memorable are; Anthony Gormley’s “One & Other” where over the course of 100 days, 2400 different people each spent one hour on top of the plinth, Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant” and Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s ship in a Bottle”. The current incarnation, Michael Rakowitz’s “The invisible enemy should not exist” is a recreation of a sculpture of a Lamassu (a winged bull and protective deity) that stood at the entrance to Nineveh from 700 B.C. It was destroyed in 2015 and this piece is made completely from empty Iraqi date syrup cans. I find it beautiful.

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On the South Eastern corner of the Square is a round edifice with a light on top. This is claimed, by some, to be the smallest police station in the world. Put in temporarily in WWI but made permanent during the general strike of 1926, it is a raised room from which a policeman could stand and watch the square in order to phone Scotland Yard, if a demonstration in the square showed signs of becoming dangerous. When the light was changed from gas to electric, the light used to flash when the phone rang, in case the assigned policeman was patrolling the square.

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I have a couple of pieces other random trivia about Trafalgar Square. The north side of the square is substantially higher than the south. This slope is not natural, the south end was lowered in order to made the National Gallery building more imposing. The earth was used to level St James’ Park.  Adolf Hitler planned to remove Nelson’s column and statue from Trafalgar Square when Germany conquered Britain. His intention was to place them in Berlin as a victory trophy.

 

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National Gallery from Trafalgar Square

 

While you visit Trafalgar Square, you should visit St Martin-in-the-fields on the NE corner and the National Gallery. I plan to do separate pieces about these. I will put links here when I have completed them.  Also, on the South side, between Whitehall and The Mall,  there is an unobtrusive hotel called The Trafalgar. This is a smart hotel and if you go to the back you can catch a lift up to a rooftop bar. The cocktails are central London prices, but they are good and the roof terrace has lovely views over the square.

 

 

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Love London, Part 1. Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column and Charles I, London WC2

 

 

DSC_2999Trafalgar Square is a tourist attraction that is packed with both dramatic architecture and history.  It has a claim to be the centre of London, in both a physical and psychological sense. Other places have claims also; Bank, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus even Hyde Park Corner, but there are a couple of good arguments in favour of Trafalgar Square.

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It has been  the scene of major British public gatherings and demonstrations from soon after its opening right until the present day. It was the backdrop to the Poll Tax demonstrations in the 1990s, CND rallies in the 1960s and ’70s, Chartist gatherings of the nascent Labour movement in the late 1800s and more recently campaigns against Climate Change and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Over the Christmas period it holds London’s most famous Christmas tree, a gift from Norway every year since 1947, as a thank you for Britain’s support during WWII. It was also the traditional gathering place for London’s New Year celebrations until the crowds became too big and deemed too dangerous to have at a single venue.

Trafalgar Square was designed in 1826 by architect John Nash, it did not really begin to take shape until the late 1830s when the National Gallery was built in 1838. It is named after the battle of Trafalgar, a famous 1805 victory over Napoleon.

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The centrepiece of the square is Nelson’s Column; a monument to the leader in that battle. This was erected in 1843 just before the square became a public area. It is a 43metre high, granite column with a 7metre statue of Horatio Nelson on top. The column itself is a Corinthian column, having an ornamental top. This ornament is made from British cannons.  There are also bas-reliefs on each side of the column at the bottom, depicting earlier famous British war victories and these are made from the melted down remains of weapons captured from the French and Spanish armies. Famously, the stonemasons who built the column are reputed to have had dinner served on its top, before the statue was placed.

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The Lions at each corner of the column were designed by Edwin Landseer and were installed in 1867. They are made of bronze and each one weighs over 6000kg. The fountains at either side of the column, were added later. The current fountains were designed by Edwin Lutyens and added just before the start of WWII. Trafalgar Square as a whole is Grade I listed, which is the highest level of architectural protection in the U.K. awarded only to buildings of exceptional interest.

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The oldest statue is to the South of the square. It depicts Charles I on a horse. This was made in 1633 and sent to be melted down after the abolition of the monarchy in 1653. The brazier to whom it was given, made his fortune selling trinkets made from the melted down statue, but he had kept it intact to return to the crown on their reinstatement. This is also what Trafalgar Square its claim to be the physical centre of London, as it is to the base of this statue that official distances to London are historically measured.

You may have heard that all the distances to London are measured from Charing Cross. This is true. The Charing Cross was one of 12 crosses placed by Edward I in memory of his wife Eleanor. It was originally in the spot currently occupied by the equestrian statue of Charles I. It was destroyed by order of Parliament after the civil war. A replacement cross was built and placed in front of Charing Cross station during the reign of Victoria. There is an original Eleanor cross still standing, from 1294, in Waltham Cross.

Part 2 of the Trafalgar Square post is here: Love London Part 2. Trafalgar Square, George IV, Victorian generals and the Fourth plinth.

 

Madame Tussauds, Marylebone Road, London

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I had forgotten how much fun Madame Tussauds could be. You have to let yourself go, embrace the kitsch, accept the corny, give in to your inner child and play! You are going to realise that enjoyment is a conscious choice as soon as you sit down in the black cab fairground ride that takes you through a potted history of London. If you disapprove of touristy romanticised attractions you should avoid coming here; where even the rats are sanitised. But, if you are new to London, looking forward to what you are going to see over the coming week, then I can see its allure.

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I like how hands on everything is, you can take a selfie with Kim Kardashian, put your head on George Clooney’s shoulder or even look up Marilyn Monroe’s billowing skirt, if that is what takes your fancy. It’s good to go in a group, it’s always fun to discuss how short Tom Cruise is,  how tired the Queen looks, or to try to get your Mum to pinch John Wayne’s bum.

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The crew that work here are friendly and helpful, happy for you to get up close and personal with the figures and to take a photo, if you ask. They are chatty and will share an anecdote, one guy told me that they sometimes have to remove left knickers from Brad Pitt’s mannequin.

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Madame Tussauds is not cheap to visit, but it is possible to get deals, either with your train ticket or as a combination with other London visitor attractions. It is definitely worth looking for these online, you would be very unlucky not to find a coupon somewhere. It is also prone to get very busy, queueing to get in and get around is always a mood dampener, so if you are here in the height of the season try to go early in the day or late in the afternoon. They sometimes have evening openings, look out for these as they are often quieter.

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There are waxworks from every walk of life here; film and pop stars, historical and political people, sports and science specialists. So if you want to kiss Kylie, hug Hawkins, shimmy with Shrek or berate Boris; this is the opportunity, all you have to do is lose your inhibitions…..and make sure you take a photo!

Hyde Park Corner, London W1.

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Hyde Park Corner has a lot going on, for what is, ultimately, the central reservation of the busiest traffic roundabout in London.

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There is Wellington Arch in the centre, which used to house the second smallest police station in Britain until 1992, it is now a museum and open to the public.  It is called the Wellington Arch because the top of it used to be crowned by a 40 ton Statue of the Duke of Wellington – the largest statue of a man on a horse that has ever been made. It was moved to Aldershot in 1912 and the arch now has a statue of a winged charioteer driving four horses on it top. This is the largest bronze statue in Europe.

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The grassed over island also has the Australian war memorial in the South Western corner and the New Zealand war memorial on the North Eastern corner. These are 21st century memorials built in 2003 and 2006 respectively and commemorating antipodean deaths in the two world wars. They are both moving pieces of public art.

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It also contains the Machine Gun Corps Memorial and the Royal Artillery Memorial, two more pieces commemorating casualties of the World Wars. These are both interesting in their own ways. I’m not sure why the Machine Gun Corps is commemorated by a statue of a young man with one hand on his hip and the other on a large sword, but it is beautiful, nonetheless. The Royal Artillery Memorial has more of a Great War atmosphere, it resembles soldiers guarding a tomb, with a cannon on its top.

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There is also a statue of Lord Byron and a large bronze of The 1st Duke of Wellington sitting on a horse. The equestrian duke statue is a smaller copy of the one that used to be atop the Wellington Arch. The best way to reach the central reservation avoiding the traffic is by one of many underground passageways. These are bright and well kept and have tiled depictions of the history of the area. I can’t believe that I am recommending  visiting the underground pathways to a traffic island, but these are quite interesting in themselves and definitely deserve a view if you have an interest in the history of the area.

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Not only is the junction itself full of interest but, there are many places very close by. There is Apsley House, the home of the Dukes of Wellington, and Hyde Park itself to the north. The wall across the road on the southern edge is Buckingham Palace garden. Green Park is on the east, and the Old St Georges hospital, now the Lanesborough Hotel, reputedly the most expensive in London, is to the west. Plus, of course underneath all this is Hyde Park Corner tube station.

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In short, if you are to visit any traffic island in central London, then this should be the one!

An Afternoon on the Bentota River, Bentota, Sri Lanka

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Seneka, our driver, said “I have a cousin who has a boat, for US$10 he will take you out on the river. For another US$10 his brother will show you everything and act as a guide. His English is very good. There is lots to see.” So, we agreed to go.

 

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Our boat arriving to pick us up

 

We had hardly left the shore when we saw a water monitor, at least two metres long, sunning herself in the garden of a riverside house. I was impressed. Our guide was less so “Water monitors, there are many, look in the trees” I looked up, indeed in the branches almost directly above our heads, there they were – just as big. I was less impressed and more nervous now. “Don’t worry” he said “They have no interest in people. Oh look! A chameleon.”

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And there it was, showing off, changing colour as we watched, becoming less green and more stick coloured as it moved away from the leaves. Dotted along the banks of the river were jetties, some with boats some without. One had a man sitting on it, with a baby crocodile beside him. “Is that a crocodile?” Michael asked. “Oh yes, it’s his pet”. We pulled up. “Would you like to hold him? It’s quite safe” The baby crocodile was thrust into Michael’s hands before he could refuse. I was secretly very pleased my hands were full with the camera at that point.

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“Will they keep him as a pet?” I asked. “Oh no, he will go away before he gets big, we will see very big ones soon” The river is wide but we stayed close to the edge because crocodiles like to be submerged in the shallow water and the shade, away from the afternoon sun. Michael had the camera again and was on the water side of the boat watching out for the crocodiles. I was on the side near the bank. I noticed the boat driver gesticulating at me. “Duck your head down low, now!” Michael said, in an ominously calm, yet urgent, tone of voice. I complied immediately. I looked back as I did so and I was confronted with a Green Vine Snake less than a foot away from my face.

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I paled, but I did not scream or jump out of the boat. I’m proud of that. Michael leant in  to take a photo. Our guide announced “It’s a Green Vine Snake; very pretty, but it is poisonous.” Michael leant away again. “It’s not interested in us, it mostly eats frogs and lizards.”  I obviously appeared horrified. “Oh look, Bee Catcher Birds” he said pointing upward.

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There were a pair in the tree above our head. They do actually eat bees, they pull out the sting and then eat the rest whole. These larger Blue Tailed Bee Catchers also eat wasps. The wasps in Sri Lanka can be very large and dangerous. His distraction worked. The snake was forgotten.

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The next strange thing was the shop, on stilts, in the middle of the river. Nothing near it, and no customers, but it was definitely a shop. It appeared to sell coconuts, fruit, soft drinks and boxed groceries. It seemed rude to question why it was there, so I didn’t ask. Soon after this we began to see the crocodiles. We saw four or five, but they were hard to photograph, partly because we didn’t want to go too near and partly because they stayed mostly submerged in the cool water – out of the warm sun.

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On the way back we saw Giant Fruit Bats. They really do look like the batman motif when they fly and they are surprisingly big.

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We took a shortcut through the mangrove forest on the way back, which was pretty but eerie. It made us very happy that we had remembered to use our mosquito repellent before we set off.

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We saw egrets, ducks and herons. We also saw a mongoose that was too quick for us to photograph. In total we spent about two hours on the water, we had a fantastic time. It was a great introduction to Sri Lanka, after all this was still our first day there.

Photos courtesy of Michael Jolly.

 

 

 

 

London City Airport, Silvertown, London

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If you are going for a short getaway, this is the place to fly from. It is 20 minutes on public transport from London Bridge to the check-in desks, and it is even less from the city. Once you arrive, unless you are unlucky, it will be no more than 10 minutes from station to airside. This airport really shortens your travel time, important if you are only having a few days away.

When you check in, try to get a window seat because the views of London from take off are spectacular.  The runway is straight in the direction of the city and the planes fly relatively low over town. This provides passengers with a better prospect of the London skyline than the London Eye, The Shard and the Skygarden combined.  If you are lucky enough to have an evening flight arriving into the airport, on your return, you will have an added bonus of the approach into London’s glittering city lights and the glistening river Thames. The takeoff and landing views are worthy of being a London attraction all by themselves.

All in all, London City Airport provides a truly premium experience and should be considered, if you are visiting London and planning a short side trip away.

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Reflected in glory

Yesterday we visited the Recoleta Cemetery where for 200 years the great and the good of Buenos Aires have competed to build the most ornate mausoleums in stone and marble.

I loved the way that with a little care it’s possible to capture a brief vignette of the architecture and stained glass reflected in the glass of doorways used by relatives to visit their ancestors.

These are my favourite photos of the day.

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