Political, religious and regal power has emanated from Westminster and Whitehall for almost a millennium. It was Edward the Confessor who established Westminster as London' s royal and ecclesiastical power base, some three miles west of the real, commercial City of London. In the nineteenth century, Whitehall became the "heart of the Empire", its ministries ruling over a quarter of the world's populations.
The monuments and buildings from this region include some of London's most famous landmarks - Nelson's Column, Big Ben and the House of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace, plus the city's two finest permanent art collections, The National Gallery and the Tate Gallery. This is a well-trodden tourist circuit for the most part - hence the council's decision to reinstate the old red phone boxes - with few shops or cafes and little street life to distract you, but it's also one of the easiest parts of London to walk round, with all the major sights within a mere half-mile of each other, linked by two of London's most triumphant avenues, Whitehall and The Mall.
Despite being little more than a glorified, sunken traffic island, infested with scruffy urban pigeons, Trafalgar Square is still one of the London's grandest architectural set-pieces. London's Trafalgar Square, the city's official center, features some of England's most treasured historic monuments. The square was laid out between 1829 and 1841 on the site of the old royal stables and is lined on its northern side by the National Gallery. The gallery, begun in 1824, boasts one of the finest art collections in the world, with work from every major western artist from the 15th through the 19th centuries. The square's dominating landmark is a pedestal supporting a statue of Lord Nelson, the British naval hero who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar in Spain, in 1805. Trafalgar Square is the location for festivities at Christmas Eve, New Year, and other major public occasions.
Nelson's Column, raised in 1843 and now one of the London's best-loved monuments, commemorates the one-armed, one-eyed admiral who defeated Napoleon, but paid for it with his life. The statue which surmounts the granite column is triple life-size but still manages to appear minuscule, and is coated in anti-pigeon gel to try to stem the build-up of guano. The acanthus leaves of the capital are cast from British cannon, while bas-reliefs around the base are from captured French armaments. Edwin Landseer's four gargantuan bronze lions guard the column and provide a climbing frame for kids to clamber over. If you can, get here before the crowds and watch the pigeons take to the air as Edwin Lutyens'fountains jet into action at 9am.
Keeping Nelson company at ground level, on either sides of the column, are bronze statues of Napier and Havelock, Victorian major-generals who helped keep India British; against the north wall are busts of Beatty, Jellicoe and Cunningham, more recent military leaders. In the northeast corner of the square, is an equestrian statue of George IV, which he himself commissioned for the top of Marble Arc, over at the northeast corner of Hyde Park, but which was later erected here "temporarily"; the corresponding pedestal in the northwest corner was earmarked for William IV, but remains empty.Taking up the entire north side of Trafalgar Square, the vast but dull Neoclassical hulk of the National Gallery houses one of the world's greatest art collections. Unlike the Louvre or the Hermitage, the National Gallery is not based on a former royal collection, but was begun as late as 1824 when the government reluctantly agreed to purchase 38 paintings belonging to a Russian émigré banker, John Julius Angerstein.
Nelson's Column, since 1843
The gallery hundred and seventy years of canny acquisition has produced a collection of more than 2200 paintings, but the collection's virtue is not so much its size, but the range, depth and sheer quality of its contents. The National Gallery's original collections was put on public display at Angertein's old residence at 100 Pall Mall, until this purpose-built building on Trafalgar Square was completed in 1838.
Around the east side of the National Gallery lurks the National Portrait Gallery, which was founded in 1856 to house uplifting depictions of the good and the great. Through it has some fine works among its collection of 10,000 portraits, many of the studies are of less interest than their subjects, and the overall impression is of an overstuffed shrine to famous British rather than a museum offering any insight into the history of portraiture. However, it is fascinating to trace who has been deemed worthy of admiration at any moment: warmongers and imperialists in the early decades of this century, writers and poets in the 1930s and 40s, and, latterly, retired footballers and pop stars. The special exhibitions, too, are well worth seeing - and the photography shows, in particular, are often excellent.
St James's Park, on the south side of The Mall, is the oldest of the royal parks, having been drained for hunting purpose by Henry VII and opened to the public by Charles II, who used to stroll through the grounds with his mistresses, and even take a dip in the canal. By the eighteenth century, when some 6500 people had access to night keys for the gates, the park had become something of a byword for prostitution. The park was finally landscaped by Nash into its present elegant appearance in 1828, in a style that established the trend for Victorian city parks.
Today the pretty tree-lined lake is a favourite picnic spot for the civil servants of Whitehall and an inner-city reserve for wildfowl. James I's two crocodiles have left no descendants, but the pelicans can still be seen by the lake, and there ducks and Canada geese aplenty. From the bridge across the lake there's a fine view over Westminster and the jumble of domes and pinnacles along Whitehall. Even the dull façade of Buckingham Palace looks majestic from here.
The graceless colossus of Buckingham Palace, popularly known as "Buck House", has served as the monarch's permanent London residence only since the accession of Victoria. It began its days in 1702 as the Duke of Buckingham's city residence, built on the site of a notorious brothel, and was sold by the duke's son to George III in 1762. The building was overhauled for the Prince Regent in the late 1820s by Nash, and again by Aston Webb in time for George V's coronation in 1913, producing a palace that's about as bland as it's possible to be.
For ten months of the year there's little to do here, with the Queen in residence and the palace closed to visitors - not that this deters the crowds who mill around the railings all day, and gather in some force to watch the "changing of the guard", in which a detachment of the Queen's Foot Guards marches to appropriate martial music from St James's Palace (unless it rains).