12 Oddities To Spot In Trafalgar Square

M@
By M@ Last edited 20 months ago

Last Updated 21 October 2022

12 Oddities To Spot In Trafalgar Square
A silhouetted Nelson's column

Nelson's Column, the Fourth Plinth, the four lions, the fountains... these are the well-known, world-famous features of Trafalgar Square. But hidden among them are the oddities, the little details that the tourists perhaps miss, which nevertheless have a story to tell us.

Here are 12 oddities of Trafalgar Square to seek out next time you're walking in Nelson's shadow...

A map of oddities in trafalgar square
Map trace based on Open Streetmap data.

1. The myth of the tiny police station

A small cylindrical building with double doors in a corner of Trafalgar Square
This mysterious cylindrical booth has long been misidentified.

Ever noticed this fun-sized building in the south-east corner of the Square? Claims that this is London's tiniest police station, where suspects could be charged and held, are not difficult to find online. The structure certainly does have connections to His Majesty's Constabulary, but it's no more a police station than M&M's World.

The booth was only ever used as an observation post, for the authorities to keep a subtle and sheltered eye on gatherings in the Square. Today, it seems to be used as a place to store tools and signage. Ian Visits has the authoritative history of this oddity if, for some reason, you need to know more.

2. Damaged stones

Granite stones at the base of Nelson's Column, bearing deep scars

War damage? Nope. This is peace damage. Look at the battered stones around the western and southern flanks of Nelson's Column and you'll notice a couple of places where the granite is cracked and eroded. These wounds date back to 1918 but were not caused by enemy action. Rather, the heat of bonfires during November Armistice celebrations caused the stone to expand and crack. If that sounds a bit far fetched, consider that the flames were fed with creosote-covered wooden blocks dug up from the road. Read the full story here.

3. Bonus Nelsons

One side of Nelson's column showing a metal relief sculpture of one of his battles

Trafalgar Square contains not one Nelson, but five. Besides the famous statue, he's also present in sculptural form on the four panels around the base of the column. The reliefs show him at the battles of Cape St Vincent, Copenhagen, the Nile and dying at Trafalgar. Each was sculpted by a different artist, and cast in metal from captured French cannon.

4. Levitating Yodas and other street performers

A Yoda costume hangs from a stand with no one in it
A flayed Yoda. Give him some money, you must.

The pedestrianised northern section of Trafalgar Square has long been the haunt of street performers, of all stripes. A few years ago, levitating Yodas were the mode. Now, vanished without trace, they have.

A roller blader with two cones, tipping their tips together as though to create a self-supporting hurdle
A skater sets up a trick as a baffled maintenance worker recounts his cones

Today's staples are the usual motley assemblage of buskers, chalk-pavement artists and the occasional performative rollerblader. Oh, and we also spotted this terrifying tarot session a couple of years back.

A clown sits at a desk having his fortune read by a Tarot guy
Caption THIS.

5. LGBTQ+ crossings

A pedestrian green signal, which shows two men holding hands and forming a heart shape

Trafalgar Square has long, strong associations with Pride and other LGBTQ+ celebrations and demonstrations. The connection is now celebrated in special pedestrian crossings which, instead of the standard green man, show green men or green women holding hands to form a heart symbol. Other designs make use of male and female symbols, coupled together in various ways. The lights were installed in 2019 and appear to be permanent. Look out, too, for the rainbow bus stop roundels, which date back to 2017.

6. The nose of Admiralty Arch

A peculiar nose-like protuberance on a portland stone

Look at the walls of the northern-most carriageway of Admiralty Arch and you might spy this strange protuberance a little above head height. It's thought to be the work of artist Rick Buckley who, in 1997, appended dozens of noses to prominent buildings as a kind of protest against surveillance. Other rogue schnozzles can be found on various streets in Soho. At the time of writing, Admiralty Arch is closed off for redevelopment. We fear for the future of the phantom nose, but record it here for posterity.

7. Putti-packed posts

Two cherubs support a lamp post in Trafalgar Square

The southern end of the square features some particularly notable lamp posts. Several are supported by chubby cherubs, who seem to be carrying their groceries home. There's much to admire about the chunky globular lamp above the "police station" we saw earlier. Meanwhile, the lamps towards the Mall are topped by handsome galleons, said to symbolise Nelson's fleet.

8. Statue of an explorer

A statue of Dias on the South African consulate

Trafalgar Square contains numerous statues to statesmen and half-forgotten warriors, but did you know that there's also an explorer lurking in their midsts? Look towards the South African High Commission to the east of the square and there you'll find Bartolomeu Dias who, in 1488, became the first European since ancient times to sail around the Cape of Good Hope.

9. The standard measures

A golden plaque showing standard measures of length

Lost your ruler and want to know the length of something in an archaic scale? Get to Trafalgar Square, where these golden plaques may enlighten you. They show various imperial measurements, such as feet, yards, chains, perches, scruttocks and woppleclefs (possibly), as defined by the Board of Trade. The standards have graced the northern wall and steps of the square since 1876, at a time when you couldn't just point your iPhone camera at something to gauge its dimensions.

10. The centre of London

A statue of Charles I on horseback, with Nelson's Column behind.

If you see a sign saying "London 120 miles", then it really means 120 miles to this fellow. The equestrian statue of Charles I is the official centre of London, from which all distances are measured. It's nothing really to do with the beheaded king. He just happens to be mounted on the spot once occupied by the original Charing Cross, from which distances were traditionally measured. Although Charles is the official centre, he doesn't occupy the geographic centre — which is actually on a housing estate in Lambeth.

11) Holy umbilical cord

A sculpture of the baby jesus on his back with umbilical cord

The north-east corner of the Square is presided over by the magnificent St Martin-in-the-Fields. It's a very public church with a splendid crypt cafeteria, small museum and no end of oddities of its own (including a warped window, public whipping post and London's longest street name). Another curiosity can be seen by heading up the steps to the front porch. Here you'll find this exceptional sculpture of the infant Christ, with umbilical still attached.

12) Nativity (Christmas time only)

A nativity scene with some very odd poses

Another 'goddity' can be seen in the Square every Christmas, when London's most eccentric nativity scene is put on show beneath the famous Christmas tree. Who is the voguing character in the foreground? Why does Joseph look so casual? Why are they all socially distancing? What is going through the sheep's mind? Ah, the mysteries of the universe.

All images, including map, by Matt Brown.

Also in this series

Oddities of Euston Road

Oddities of Strand