| paulcapewell.com
| Trafalgar Square
Posted on 24 February 2023


At Charing Cross station, I found myself with some time to kill before my train. Just outside lies Trafalgar Square, offering gaudy, touristic delights and other distractions. I knew with it being just before 6pm it would be busy as hell, and yet I couldn't resist the lure. Few can. That's probably what makes it so busy.

I decided to do a lap. It's a place I feel like I know well, and yet it's not somewhere I choose to visit often. I just tend to gravitate towards it from time to time. I decided it would be worth revisiting, just to make sure I have it sussed out correctly.

To circumnavigate the square - to circle the square, I suppose - one must follow a set of pedestrian crossings which provide safe passage across the main ring road which makes Trafalgar Square feel like what it really is: a giant roundabout.

These crossings provide safe passage, that is, if you actually use them properly and obey the lights. Not everyone does. It was quite amazing seeing the near-misses, and how so often the near-hitter and the near-missed simply shrugged and carried on. Oh to have that level of object detection built in. I am clumsy and distracted enough at the best of times to know that I must Obey The Lights.

By the third crossing, I actually decided that some of the ones around this square should probably have level-crossing style barriers which drop down for the benefit of the pedestrians as much as the road users.

I waited to cross another road which leads to the Mall (pronounced like 'cal' in calculator, to the confusion of basically everyone who has ever had the need to utter it). As I waited, I saw a laminated piece of A4 paper on the lamppost. It gave notice of an application for a new alcohol licence specifically for the duration of the Coronation of His Majesty the King. It actually spelled out those words in full. I just loved the specificity of it, as well as the collision of a tacky piece of laminated paper with the pomp and glamour of An Actual Coronation.

Safely over this crossing, ahead of me lay the edifice of Canada House, complete with a limousine parked outside with the diplomatic plate of CAN 1. Above my head, and extending some way into the distance in the dying evening light, was a row of Canadian maple leaf flags breathing gently in the breeze looking to my peripheral vision like actual maple leaves fluttering to the ground.

Outside the National Portrait Gallery, vast holes in the ground where the blockwork stones have been lifted, soil removed, and new rainwater drains were being laid. I wondered briefly at the mysterious archeological finds that lay just beneath the pavement in this storied square, before I remembered that the entire place is probably dug up cyclically every few years, and that the most interesting stuff is probably above ground.

Looking up, the gallery itself, which sits in pride of place at the 'top' of the square, is shrouded in plastic wrapped scaffolding. Against a similarly grey sky, the large building appears to have been badly photoshopped out of the skyline.

While noticing this I spot a lamppost with what I assume to be a replica imitation gas light at the top - an expensive, heritage conservation area version of those cheap, flickering LED tealights you find on restaurant tables in winter. I stop briefly to look closer and it turns out to be an actual gas lamp, its flames too organic to be faked, making this one of the few still serviced by London's gas lighters. This is probably my favourite discovery of this brief visit to the square. Certainly it was something I'd never noticed before, despite it having been there a damn sight longer than I have, and I'm sure it will be there a long while after me, too.

Turning 180 degrees from the gallery, the classic view of Nelson's Column with Big Ben (or rather the Elizabeth Tower) to its side in the distance. I raise my phone, fresh from photographing the gaslamp, to take a photo of this view. I have no idea why I do this.

Seconds later, I heard bells striking six. The bells of St Martin-in-the-Fields. If I'd realised a few seconds earlier, I'd have made a field recording as there was quite a satisfying 'white noise' bed of busy human hubbub underneath the bells.

It was useful to hear these bells on two levels.

First, my train was now less than ten minutes from departing, and the chimes hastened my return. And second, I had briefly heard these bells from just outside Charing Cross station before and - incorrectly as it turns out - assumed them to be the chimes of Big Ben.

One thing I've learned about making recordings of church bells in London is that the sound really doesn't travel that far. Not even Big Ben.

Traflgar Square having called time on my brief perambulation, I closed my circular route, and paused at the final road crossing that stood between me and the station.

Ahead of the waiting traffic, I spotted a broken wine glass, smashed at the top, but still with its stem intact, standing upright in the middle of the road. It somehow still had some of its contents intact in the remaining portion of the bowl below its shattered rim. The small amount of liquid appeared to glow in the reflected headlights and neon, or it might have contained the remnants of a vivid-coloured cocktail.

Whatever it was, this smashed, yet still semi-functional vessel standing in defiance ahead of an impatient queue of taxis in the middle of one of the busiest places in the world was a rather perfect little metaphor for it all as I headed off to catch my train, leaving the controlled chaos, juxtapositions, contradictions, and histories of Trafalgar Square behind.