diamond geezer

 Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Trafalgar Square (6): The centre of town
In medieval times the top of Whitehall was a quiet underdeveloped backwater. Here the street east to the City met the lane down to Westminster, and a road branched off across what was not yet west London. Go on, take a look on a map. And at the centre of this three-way junction stood a stone cross - the original Charing Cross - built by King Edward I to commemorate the passing of his beloved wife. Queen Eleanor's corpse paused here overnight at the end of a twelve-stage journey south from Lincolnshire (oh you probably know the story, I've told it before, and if not you'll find it here). The Eleanor Cross survived from 1291 to 1647, during which time it became the key point from which all distances from London were measured. And then those puritanical Parliamentarians declared it idolatrous and had it destroyed, breaking it down into stone then used to pave part of Whitehall to the south. After the Civil War an equestrian statue of Charles I took the cross's place in the middle of the road, portraying the king a full six inches taller than he was in real life (before his beheading, that is).

The stone cross you can still see further up the Strand outside Charing Cross station is a cunning Victorian facsimile and rather more ornate than the 13th century original. But that first cross is still commemorated by a metal plaque at King Charles' feet, stranded in the middle of a small cobbled roundabout just a pelican crossing away from Nelson's Column. Those three medieval roads still meet here (joined now by Northumberland Avenue and The Mall), and the surrounding hubbub must be at least as great as before, except with tourists, cars and buses replacing merchants, carts and cows. And, in silent tribute to the body of an otherwise forgotten queen, all distances from the capital are still measured from the exact site of her final resting place. This is London - dead centre.

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