The pigeons have gone, but visitors are flocking to Trafalgar Square

Art venue. Film set. And now maze. Andy McSmith on the rebirth of a London landmark

Ten years ago, no one hung around in Trafalgar Square for long unless they had a high tolerance of pigeons. What the Square offered was Nelson's Column, four metal lions, a set of two fountains and a flock of birds so dense and fat on grain that a child could get lost in a flapping, cooing cloud of semi-domesticated feathered vermin.

A child can get lost in Trafalgar Square again this week. In fact, they are meant to, because on a part of the square which would once have been thick with pigeon droppings there is a maze.

As a maze, it hardly competes with the one in Longleat in Wiltshire, which has nearly two miles of paths between rows made of 16,000 yews. Trafalgar Square's temporary maze covers an area of about 540 square yards, and though the notice at the entrance invites you to "get lost in the West End", it takes only a couple of minutes to find your way past the three or four dead ends.

That has not stopped the visitors pouring in. The maze opened at noon yesterday, and in little more than two hours, 2,000 visitors had passed through.

Its special feature is that each section has a street sign bearing the name of a famous street in the West End, and a blue plaque outlining the history of the street. For the most part, "history" means cultural events that have taken place within the lifetime of the average grandparent. You can find out, for instance, where and why Maurice Micklewhite changed his name to Michael Caine, or on which street The Beatles gave their last live performance – but there is also an occasional nugget from further back in time, such as the name of the first English trader to sell grapefruit.

The maze, which was created by the West End Partnership, an umbrella organisation that promotes theatreland and its assorted entertainments, is one sign of the way that Trafalgar Square is a very different public space from what it used to be when it was home to one of the largest and fattest concentrations of pigeons anywhere in the world.

The main amusements back then were feeding these indulged birds. There was a famous character named Bernie Rayner who ran a stall selling little packets of grain which tourists bought at an inflated price to feed the equally inflated pigeons. They fed so well that they bred several times a year. Repairing the damage to Nelson's Column caused by pigeon droppings cost £140,000.

Video: A-mazing West End

But when Ken Livingstone was elected as London's first Mayor, in 2000, he was prepared to invest £25m in making the capital's most famous square a more attractive place to congregate, with its north side closed to traffic and made into a pedestrian area, and with a café and new public toilets added. His plans included a declaration of war on the 4,000 pigeons.

The Greater London Assembly passed a bylaw making it illegal to feed them, and introduced hawks to frighten them away, and council staff made periodic raids with giant vacuum cleaners to hoover up any grain or other food from the square's smart new paving stones.

The campaign provoked outrage from bird lovers, and from Bernie Rayner, who tried to obtain a High Court order to protect his business. A pressure group, Save the Trafalgar Square Pigeons, sprang up. They discovered that there was a corner of the Square where GLA bylaws did not apply, because it was under the jurisdiction of Westminster City Council, and would arrive early in the morning with a vanload of pigeon feed.

But in the end the Mayor got his way, and Trafalgar Square entered its post-pigeon era, where people could walk, sit, eat, and watch their children play without being dive-bombed.

The Square has since featured as a set in films such as 28 Weeks Later, the Bollywood production Salaam-E-Ishq and the recent version of St Trinian's. It has been the location for a sequence of anti-war rallies. In April, Boris Johnson, the current Mayor, sponsored an open-air concert in Trafalgar Square to celebrate St George's Day.

But what has probably attracted more interest than anything else is the celebrated fourth plinth. It was erected early in Queen Victoria's reign to hold a statue of William IV, but – to London's enduring good fortune – the funds for the statue were never raised, and the plinth stood empty for a century and a half.

In 1999 the Royal Society of Arts launched the Fourth Plinth Project, making it a setting for a sequence of contemporary works of art such as the striking Alison Lapper Pregnant, a statue of the artist born with no arms and shortened legs, For six months, the plinth housed a fibreglass statue of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, a hero of the Battle of Britain. Currently, it holds an 11ft sculpture called Nelson's Ship in a Bottle by the Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn