Trafalgar Square, heart of the nation

This week, it has hosted a riotous party to celebrate the Ashes victory and it has gained a controversial new installation. Paul Vallely on the role the famous landmark plays in British life
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Yesterday, in that same pigeon-infested venue, it was a hero of a different kind, the artist Alison Lapper - born without arms and with shortened legs - who took centre-stage. A 15ft statue of her was erected on the empty plinth in the north-west corner of the square which has usually stood empty for the past 150 years.

Yet it was fitting that these two disparate events should occupy the same space. For Trafalgar Square is not just a convenient open space in the middle of London. It is not simply the place from which all distances to the capital are measured. It is the symbolic heart of the nation.

Standing, as it does, at the intersection between, to the south, Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster, to the east, the City of London, and to the west, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square lies at the core of the United Kingdom's political, commercial and ceremonial seats of power.

Which is why the square has been not merely the place in which the British people have assembled in times of public celebration and crisis. It has become in the process a place of myth and emblem which constantly adapts to reflect the values and preoccupations of each time.

The place took its name from the great naval battle of 1805 which set the seal on a century of British global domination. But over the years it changed from a place of monuments to the ruling class to a forum in which the language of the plain people of England could be heard.

The square was the site of Chartist demonstrations. It was where Sylvia Pankhurst called a great suffragette rally in 1906. The veteran socialist Keir Hardie spoke on workers' rights there in 1910. After the First World War, a great wave of hunger marches brought people from as far away as Wales and Scotland. There were protests against fascism before the Second World War and celebrations there on VE and VJ Days. A Christmas tree from the people of Norway has stood there every year since as Londoners have gathered to usher in each new year.

In the Fifties and Sixties, CND demonstrations took place there, as did protests against apartheid a few years later. Then it was the turn of striking miners. The Trafalgar Square riot by anti-poll tax campaigners in March 1990 played a key role in undermining Margaret Thatcher. More recently, riots broke out among football fans after Germany knocked England out of the World Cup in a penalty shoot-out in 1996. And in 2001 the square, named in celebration of a British military triumph, became the focal point for more than a million people fearing imminent military tragedy in Iraq.

The square stands on the site of what was, in the 13th century reign of Edward I, an important meeting place between the City of London and Westminster's Royal Palace and Abbey.

The site became a royal mews and stables, though from 1222 a church also stood there which was to become St Martin-in-the-Fields. The present neo-classical building on the north-east of the square was built in 1721 by the Scottish architect James Gibbs. It too is instructive of the changing times. Behind the architecture of empire, it became much famed for its music; in 1959 the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields was formed there by Sir Neville Marriner. More recently, it has developed one of the biggest support units for the homeless on the streets of London.

But it is Nelson himself who speaks most eloquently of those shifts. His monument was not wanted by the architect Charles Barry, who in the 1840s remodelled the square which had been designed by John Nash two decades earlier. He felt that the 171ft column, with its 18ft statue of Nelson on top, would dwarf the surrounding buildings.

He was not to hold sway. The huge pillar, modelled on Trajan's column in Rome from a time when earlier military victories marked the greatest extent of the Roman Empire, was part of a self-conscious attempt to suggest that Britain had inherited the mantle of ruler of the world.

That was why Adolf Hitler during the Second World War gave instructions not to bomb the column. His plan was - after a successful German invasion of England - to pinch it. "Ever since the battle of Trafalgar," Nazi files later revealed, "the Nelson Column represents for England a symbol of British naval might and world domination. It would be an impressive way of underlining the German Victory if the Nelson Column were to be transferred to Berlin."

Yet there is something even more revealing about the column. It says something about the virtues the English saw as characteristic of their national greatness - strength, character, courage, sacrifice and heroic death. They did not stress tradition, breeding or position. Nelson was from a humble background - the son of a Norfolk parson - and the inscriptions on his statue, as on those of the other military men in the square, tell of individual worth rather than of ancestry.

It was, as the art historian Paul Usherwood has noted, "a new breed of national hero fit for the new kind of non-dynastic, meritocratic conception of Britain then being formulated by a newly assertive bourgeoisie." They are virtues not dissimilar from those attributed in recent days to Andrew Flintoff - courage, skill, determination and a burning desire to fight it out - to which the modern age adds admiration for his new-man insistence on holding his toddler Holly in the midst of his hard-drinking, eye-glazed, open-topped celebrations.

In any case, we are now happy to rewrite the Victorian hagiographies of Nelson by writers such as the poet Southey (not a man known for his grasp of naval detail, nor indeed much else factual about his hero's life). We prefer to dwell on the great man's liaison with Emma Hamilton and think of him as a drunken womaniser and military incompetent. Some academics have even branded him a "war criminal" because of his treatment of the rebels in Naples in 1794. Much more our kind of hero nowadays. Even so, when in 2003 BBC Television conducted a poll entitled "Great Britons", Nelson came ninth - just below John Lennon and well, well below Diana, Princess of Wales.

In any case, controversy is essential to all this hero celebration. Fans of the Alison Lapper Pregnant sculpture only had their enthusiasm whetted when the Daily Mail et al made the usual disparaging noises about modern art and suggested that the empty plinth should be occupied by a statue of someone like the Queen Mother.

It has always been thus around Trafalgar Square. When St Martin-in-the-Fields was built, one architect complained about "the absurd rustication of the windows" and "the heavy sills and trusses under them [which] are unpardonable blemishes". The original National Gallery was condemned when it was built in 1831 as being of a " weak design" - much as a design for an extension to it was more recently scorned by the Prince of Wales as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved, elegant friend". Charles Dickens moaned about "the ridiculous insufficiency of [the] jets of water" from Charles Barry's fountains when they were switched on. A cacophony of controversy and squabbles has greeted almost everything that has ever happened in the square, such is the sense of ownership which almost everybody feels about the place.

On all of this Viscount Nelson looks down, inscrutably - not least so because his statue is so high up it is impossible for most people to see it without the aid of binoculars. (If they could, those who have complained that the Lapper sculpture, with its celebration of disability, is too politically correct might notice that the great man himself has only one eye and an arm missing).

He has seen some changes in his time. For a start his square was part-pedestrianised in 2002, to the outrage of London's dyspeptic taxi drivers, who take any alteration in the capital's traffic arrangements as some kind of personal affront. And the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, has banned the vendors of bird food who sold tourists the wherewithal to keep the clouds of pigeons - which the newt-loving mayor described as " flying rats" - attracted to the piazza.

Yet through it all, the square has retained its capacity to inspire. Even Nelson Mandela was fired to new levels of rhetoric on his last appearance there to address a Make Poverty History rally on the eve of the Gleneagles summit. "I can never thank the people of Britain enough for their support through those days of the struggle against apartheid. Many stood in solidarity with us, just a few yards from this spot," he said, standing just across from the South Africa embassy which was the scene of all-night vigils during the years when Mandela was in prison. "Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great," he said in his peroration. "You could be that generation."

And so we can. Or at least we feel we can, when we stand in that place whose stones seem to give palpable expression to our social, historical and political aspirations. Those change as each era passes, but for one generation after another Trafalgar Square is the place onto which we project our sense of what it is to be British.

Gathering points across the nation

St George's Hall Plateau, Liverpool

The broad plateau outside one of Britain's finest neo-classical buildings has become the city's meeting point at moments of celebration and sorrow. Approached by the steps which lead up to St George's Hall, designed by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes and completed in 1854, hundreds gathered there to pray for the Iraq hostage Ken Bigley.

Albert Square, Manchester

Named after the statue of Queen Victoria's consort - designed by Thomas Worthington. The memorial was joined two decades later by the town hall, Alfred Waterhouse's neo-Gothic masterwork, which led to the alternative title of "Town Hall Square". At 2pm on VE Day 1945, thousands gathered to hear Winston Churchill's announcement.

George Square, Glasgow

The centre of public life in a city renowned for political militancy and party spirit. It was laid out in 1781 when it was described as "a hollow, filled with green-water, and a favourite resort for drowning puppies". Now decorated with statues of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and others, it is used for large public gatherings, protests, festive parties and concerts.

Civic Centre, Cardiff

The neo-classical Civic Centre forms a focal point for major celebrations in the Welsh capital. The main square outside the domed City Hall attracted thousands of rugby fans to watch Wales win the Six Nations Grand Slam on large screens in March this year. Framing the square are the law courts, national museum, art gallery and university and war memorials.