Hidden Trafalgar Square: An Explorer's Guide to - Atlas Obscura

An Explorer's Guide to
Hidden Trafalgar Square

Wedged between Charing Cross and Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square is known for the throngs of people flocking to its famous attractions. Weave around the tourists on the National Gallery stairs and dodge the crowds clogging the street corners. Instead, duck down dreamy alleys and pop into unique, overlooked museums and shops. There, a secret side of this busy area waits to reveal itself.

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A replica of Charles I's plush throne stands beneath the paintings. Suzanne Plunkett
View fit for a king

1. The Rubens Ceiling at the Banqueting House

Your day begins beneath one of the last things Charles I of England saw before his execution in 1649—a masterpiece by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. Grab a free audio guide and sink into one of the plush beanbag chairs scattered throughout this first-floor room at the Banqueting House, where you’ll lounge below a set of canvases set snugly into the ceiling.

Charles commissioned the sumptuous ceiling in what was then part of Whitehall Palace, the main royal residence, to honor his father, James I. The three main canvasses glorify the monarchy and the divine right of kings, depicting the unification of England and Scotland, the reign of James I, and the king rising to Heaven on the back of an eagle. Architect Inigo Jones designed the hall’s ceiling to be a perfect frame for the artwork, creating a beamed design with blank shapes the paintings could fit tightly inside. But when Rubens’s and Jones’s assistants unrolled the artwork, they realized there’d been a slight snafu. The scrolls’ dimensions didn’t match those of the ceiling, thanks to a measurement mix-up caused by England and Belgium using a different standard length for a foot. To get the canvasses to fit, the assistants had to give them a careful trim.

Charles I’s throne on the far end of the room offered him a prime vantage point for contemplating the images and their meanings. The ceiling was also one of his final sights. After losing the Civil War to the Parliamentarians, Charles exited out a nearby window (which no longer exists), and stepped onto the scaffold, where he was beheaded.

Whitehall, London, England, United Kingdom

Calvary from the Horse Guards Parade are said to have tweaked the nose as they rode through the arch. Suzanne Plunkett
Architectural oddity

2. A Nose for Details

Walk beneath the northernmost opening of Admiralty Arch, and you may notice a small nub hiding in plain sight about seven feet above the ground. It’s a nose, and its presence has puzzled pedestrians for years.

The mysterious, out-of-place nose is steeped in local lore. One popular myth claims it was placed there as a nod to the Duke of Wellington, who was known for a particularly prominent one. Another urban legend says the nose was a spare part for Trafalgar Square’s centerpiece feature, Nelson’s Column. According to this tale, people were concerned the statue would be damaged when it was lifted to its perch, so a spare schnoz was stashed on the arch, where it remained hidden for decades.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the true origin of the enigmatic nose was sniffed out. It was one of several noses created by artist Rick Buckley in 1997 as part of a project criticizing CCTV and the spread of a “Big Brother” society across Britain. Buckley made 35 plaster casts of his own honker and placed them “under the nose” of officials in well-trafficked areas and on prominent buildings. Today, it’s said that seven noses remain stuck to structures around London’s Soho neighborhood.

The Mall, St. James's, London, England, United Kingdom

In the TV program, the foot stomps on credits, not pigeons. Suzanne Plunkett
Secret sights

3. Surprises in the Square

Now, turn your attention to Trafalgar Square itself. Take a good look at the lions guarding the fountains, and you’ll notice the ferocious felines’ paws actually look like they belong to house cats (the sculptor wasn’t familiar with lions). Traipse over to the southeast corner of the square, and you’ll see something that looks like a lamp post with a door in it. This strange structure was once London’s smallest police station. A single officer could cram inside it and keep an eye on crowds at this popular protesting spot. If you peek inside today, though, you’ll only spot brooms, as it’s now used for storage.

Next, head to the National Gallery. Turn your gaze to the ground as you walk up the stairs, and you’ll notice a series of plaques containing the official imperial standard units of measurements, the system used throughout the British Empire. Thousands of tourists trod over these tablets each day, often unaware they’re stepping on bits of history.

Once you’re inside the National Gallery, make your way to Room 8. There, hiding in a Mannerist masterpiece, is a pop culture surprise. Agnolo Bronzino painted "An Allegory with Venus and Cupid" for King Francis I of France in the 16th century. Hundreds of years later, American-born animator Terry Gilliam wandered past the painting while seeking inspiration for the comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Cupid’s foot caught his eye, and became the basis for the iconic Monty Python foot that stomps from the sky and squashes scenes beneath its cartoon toes.

Trafalgar Square, London, England, United Kingdom

Boris Anrep's "Mosaic of the Nativity," made in 1954, stands in front of the murals. Suzanne Plunkett
Divine art

4. Jean Cocteau Murals at the Church of Notre Dame de France

Venture toward Leicester Square and into the unusually shaped Church of Notre Dame de France, whose round interior once displayed panoramas. The hushed, hallowed space offers a refuge from the packs of people shuffling around outside. Look to the left-hand side of the church, where you’ll spot three colorful murals covering the walls of a glass-protected enclave.

The church was consecrated in 1861 as a spiritual haven for the area’s French community. After much of the original building was destroyed during World War II, French cultural attaché René Varin reached out to various French artists to help create a space that would celebrate their homeland. Poet, artist, writer, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau answered the call. He traveled to London and set to work, spending a week holed up behind a privacy barrier. The final result is a set of striking murals showing the Annunciation, Jesus's crucifixion, and Mary's assumption into Heaven. Take a good look at the crucifixion scene, and you’ll notice Cocteau has given himself a cameo.

5 Leicester Place, London, England, United Kingdom

This bibliophile's wonderland hides just off a bustling thoroughfare. Suzanne Plunkett
Antique treasures

5. Booksellers' Row

There’s a good reason this dreamy little 17th-century lane was dubbed “Booksellers’ Row.” Stroll down Cecil Court, and you’ll pass dozens of secondhand bookstores and antiquarian shops. You can pop into the stores lining the street to peruse rare maps, first-edition books, esoteric goods, and unique art and jewelry. Some of the businesses display portions of their stock outside their Victorian facades, making it easy to rifle through bins of prints or flip through various books. The pedestrian street is as historical as it is charming—Mozart lived here when he was eight years old, and over a century later, the lane featured heavily in early British cinema.

Once you’ve wandered through Cecil Court, nip across St. Martin’s Lane and peek down Goodwin’s Court, a picturesque alley that looks plucked from the pages of a Dickens novel.

Cecil Court, London, England, United Kingdom

Wedged against a back wall, the statue is easy to miss. Suzanne Plunkett
Curious crypt

6. The Gravestone of the First Pearly King

Churches have stood on this site since medieval times. The most recent is St. Martin-in-the-Fields, built in 1726, which sits along the eastern edge of Trafalgar Square. Descend into its labyrinthine crypt, past the cafeteria-style cafe, and turn right down the narrow hallway. You’ll pass an old whipping post on your way to the second, quieter seating area. Swing left, and you’ll find yourself staring down another slim passage lined with old gravestones. Against the far wall, you’ll spot a life-sized statue of Henry Croft, known as the “First Pearly King.” A street sweeper by profession, Croft would don a pearl-covered suit while raising money for charity, using the glitzy garb to attract attention to himself. Though he died in 1930, the tradition outlived him. Today, you can still spot “Pearlies” out and about in London, wearing shiny attire and raising funds for a cause.

Trafalgar Square, London, England, United Kingdom

The whimsical work of art invites you to stop and chat with the dead playwright. Suzanne Plunkett
Eccentric art

7. An Ode to Oscar Wilde

Head east down Duncannon Street and take a brief detour down Adelaide Street. There, you’ll spot the first public monument to Oscar Wilde located outside Ireland. "A Conversation with Oscar Wilde," created by Maggi Hambling and installed in 1998, is indeed a conversation starter. Wilde’s head, which looks like a squiggly glob of spilled spaghetti, emerges from a coffin-shaped base. His equally abstract hand clutches at nothing, as the cigarette he originally held was repeatedly stolen. The sculpture also serves as a bench, so feel free to take a seat.

3 Adelaide St, London, England, United Kingdom

The staff will often delight curious customers with a trick or two. Suzanne Plunkett
Magicians’ mecca

8. The World’s Oldest Family-Run Magic Shop

Once on Strand, keep an eye out for a staircase between a Starbucks and Paperchase. Go down and enter an underground arcade. Walk along the sticky floor speckled with globs of old gum, then swing right, and you’ll arrive at the world’s oldest family-run magic emporium.

Davenports Magic Shop opened in 1898, and has something for everyone, from newbies buying their first deck of cards to veterans with more than a few schemes up their sleeves. Browsing its stock is like dipping your hand into a magician’s hat—you never know what wonders you’ll uncover. The shelves lining the small, red-carpeted store are stuffed with all sorts of books, out-of-print editions, DVDs, cards, and other tools of the trade.

7 Charing Cross Underground Arcade, The Strand, London, England, United Kingdom

The Great Storm of 1987 changed the city's skyline, toppling hundreds of thousands of trees. Suzanne Plunkett
Living memorial

9. Charing Cross Storm Tree

On October 16, 1987, the “Great Storm” tore through London, where winds topped 98 miles per hour and knocked down 250,000 of the city’s trees. Twenty-two human fatalities were reported in England, France, and the Channel Islands, and England lost a total of 15 million trees that night. In the aftermath, the Evening Standard newspaper raised £60,000 to plant new trees in each of London’s 32 boroughs and the City of London. This English oak was planted a year after the terrible storm. Now, commuters rushing to and from Charing Cross station likely pass through the living monument’s dappled shadow without a second glance. A plaque attached to a nearby pillar tells the tree’s history, and a second plaque installed in 2017 honors Angus McGill, the newspaper columnist who spearheaded the fundraising effort.

Villiers St, London, England, United Kingdom

After the Victoria Embankment was built, this former marshland became solid ground. Suzanne Plunkett
Portal to the past

10. The York Water Gate

Head down Villiers Street toward the Victoria Embankment Gardens. There, you’ll spot an ornate, Italianate water gate sitting atop a bed of dirt and greenery. Before the Victoria Embankment was constructed in 1862, changing the river’s course as it modernized the city's sewer system and reduced traffic along the Strand, this gate sat on the northern edge of the River Thames for more than 200 years. It served as a waterfront entrance to the esteemed York House mansion, one of the fancier homes that dotted this stretch of prime riverside real estate. Boats would pull right up to its stairs, depositing passengers in the property’s back gardens. Departing guests could huddle beneath the gate’s two arches while waiting for their watercraft to arrive. Today, the gate is surrounded by solid ground, more than 300 feet from the shore. It’s a relic of the river’s old path and a reminder of the now-demolished mansion it once served.

Watergate Walk, London, England, United Kingdom

Hundreds of glass peepers peer at you as you explore the space. Suzanne Plunkett
Eye-popping collection

11. Century-Old Optical Museum

Tucked in the basement of the College of Optometrists is the British Optical Association Museum, home to a curious collection of ocular objects. The now-defunct British Optical Association opened the museum—the world's oldest of its kind—in 1901 to record the development of corrective eyewear, and its collection has continued to grow. Though thousands of visitors come to Trafalgar Square every day, only about 1,000 guests dip inside this appointment-only museum each year.

A guided tour of the museum’s two rooms reveals a unique feast for the eyes, as well as a crash course in all things optical. With the collection’s curator as your guide, your introduction comes from the man who knows it best. Glasses and glass eyeballs gaze at you from beneath their cases, and you’ll find shelves stuffed with eye-related art and artifacts, including an eye of Horus. Tacked to the wall, there's a plaster cast of a 15th-century nun wearing spectacles, a replica of a real corbel from an English church. Look for the plush chicken donning “pecktacles,” frames industrial farmers once used to keep the birds from pecking at each others’ eyes.

42 Craven St, London, England, United Kingdom

A lifelike look at the quarters of 221B Baker Street. Suzanne Plunkett
Snacks for sleuths

12. The Upstairs Apartment at the Sherlock Holmes Pub

This watering hole serves as both a restaurant and an ode to London’s most famous detective. The pub is crammed with props related to the books and movies starring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s superstar—think pipes and vials—and there’s even a taxidermy “hound of Baskerville” hanging on the wall near the bathrooms. Go upstairs, and you’ll find a life-sized replica of the apartment Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson shared, with immaculate details ripped straight from the novels. A bear rug sprawls across a floor crowded with clutter, making it look as though two messy sleuths still live in the space.

The collection was originally curated by the Westminster Library and displayed as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The pub’s owners acquired it a few years later, and it became the crux of the eatery’s identity. Now, behind glass windows, the storybook apartment is a stark contrast to the chatter and clinks of cutlery on the other side of the panes, where diners tuck into fish and chips, burgers, baked potatoes, and other classic pub grub.

10 Northumberland St, London, England, United Kingdom

The bar gives travelers a unique view of the square's iconic column. Suzanne Plunkett
Dazzling perspective

13. Rooftop Tipples at the Trafalgar St. James

You’ll end your adventure at the Trafalgar St. James. Take the lift to the seventh floor and step onto the patio of its rooftop bar for a birds-eye view of the square. The covered portions will keep you dry even on a soggy day, and outdoor heaters keep the space cozy during the drearier months. From this height, you’ll also have an unusual view of Nelson’s Column. Rather than standing in its shadow and craning your neck to see the sandstone statue that crowns the pillar, the rooftop bar gives you a prime view of Admiral Nelson’s profile. Grab an after-dinner digestif and drink it all in—and watch the tourists bustling by the hidden wonders you’ve already explored.

7th Floor, 2 Spring Gardens, London, England, United Kingdom

Special thanks to James Manning, Feargus O'Sullivan, and Luke J. Spencer

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