Nelson's Column: The real London eye


Blackleaf
#1
If you thought that you could get a good view of the world's greatest city from the London Eye, then you should see the view from the top of Nelson's Column.

Nelson's Column: The real London eye
BY ROBERT HARDMAN, Daily Mail

14th July 2006




Nelson's shorter than thought - but his view is still breathtaking. Our man ROBERT HARDMAN climbed up to join him

After a century wrapped in bronze bandages, his broken arm has finally healed — which must come as a mighty relief having lost the other in Tenerife in 1797. The holes in his shoe, shoulder, groin and face have been patched up, too.

Obviously, it must be a little irritating to discover that one is actually 16ft shorter than one had always imagined. But, none the less, Britain’s most celebrated national hero is now in better condition than at any stage since Queen Victoria was on the throne.

His thick patina of pigeon excrement, London exhaust and general urban grot has been steam-blasted away. His freshly painted sword is glinting in the afternoon sun.

Through his good eye, freshly scrubbed, he can peer straight into Tony Blair’s bedroom and John Prescott’s grace-and-favour flat. And if he raises his gaze beyond Parliament and Buckingham Palace, he can peer out past Battersea Power Station and on to the Surrey hills, beyond which lie Hampshire, Portsmouth, the Channel, France and, ultimately, Cape Trafalgar itself.

Welcome back Horatio Nelson — or, as his business card would have put it, Vice-Admiral The Viscount Nelson, Baron Nelson of the Nile and Duke of Bronte KB.

Thanks to the most extensive overhaul in his history — a £430,000 top-to-bottom restoration — we now know a good deal more about one of Britain’s greatest landmarks.

For example, as six miles of protective scaffolding are slowly dismantled, we not only learn that Nelson’s Column is a tad shorter than we thought (169ft rather than 185ft), but that it weighs more than 2,500 tons and is robust enough to last several thousand years.

"This could be here as long as the Pyramids," says project director Adrian Attwood of David Ball Restoration.

But while the boffins complete their structural work, I have a simpler goal. Nelson’s Column has been covered in scaffolding only three times in its 163-year history and it is unlikely to happen again for a long time. So, while the opportunity is there, I want to see exactly what Nelson sees. It has to be the best view in the capital.

Having panted my way up the temporary 25-storey aluminium staircase alongside the column, I arrive at the great man’s sandstone feet, my head roughly level with his knees.

He really does have London’s top perch. Big Ben may be taller. The Millennium Eye may revolve. But neither is as central as this and both have something obscuring their views — Nelson. Standing alongside the Admiral, I feel as if I am slap-bang in the middle of the capital. Following his view to the south, I can see the traffic grinding to a halt outside Buckingham Palace, where 8,000 garden party guests are queuing in their finery.

I can also see the ugly vents and machinery a lot of stately buildings are hiding on the roof. Canada House, South Africa House, the National Gallery — all look a sorry sight from on high. An honourable exception is the Admiralty Citadel on the edge of Horse Guards. It may be a squat, concrete, windowless, bomb-proof box from ground level. From above, it appears to be crowned with a rather nice lawn.

Now that Mr Prescott has been denied the joys of Dorneywood, he could easily hop out from his plush flat in Admiralty Arch and plant his croquet hoops in the grass above the Citadel. Looking beyond all that, I can see Downing Street and the backs of Numbers 10, 11 and 12. No sign of the Prime Minister standing on a ledge just yet. If only I had brought my high-powered binoculars, I could probably watch him pace the room, fretting over the latest developments in the Lord Levy affair.




The view

Nelson’s view is somewhat restricted since he has always stood in a southerly direction towards the Channel.

He cannot look to the east to see his own mortal resting place at St Paul’s Cathedral, now squashed in among the office blocks. Nor can he gaze north to the foothills of Hampstead’s luvvieland or, directly beneath him, Trafalgar Square’s two flower-shaped fountains designed by Lutyens.

Traffic swirls all around us. I feel slightly queasy staring at the ebb and flow. So, I turn my attention to Nelson himself. He is in remarkably good condition considering he has been staring into the prevailing winds through a century-and-a-half of smog and pigeons, not to mention the Blitz.

He is decked out in his full regalia, including all his decorations. So robust is the original sandstone from the Duke of Buccleuch’s Craigleith quarry — now defunct — that virtually nothing has eroded.

Even the word ‘Nile’, engraved into his King’s Medal for that epic 1798 victory at the Battle of the Nile, is still clearly visible. Nelson’s sculptor, Edward Hodges Baily, created the 18-ton statue in three main sections — lower body, upper body and his left arm clasping a mighty 8ft bronze sword which acts as a conduit for the lightning conductor on his hat. Propping it all up on the northern side is a huge stone coil of rope.

As part of the national landscape since pre-Crimea days, The Nelson Column, as it was originally known, has long been taken for granted. But the longer I spend up here, the more I realise what an extraordinary structure this is.

Will a future Britain ever raise such a monument to a national hero? It was the Duke of Wellington who finally did for Napoleon, but he does not command the London skyline. Churchill, who could rightly be credited with a similar feat of national salvation, warrants a decent statue in Parliament Square, but nothing on this scale.

The Horatio Nelson story, in life as in death, defies the rulebook. A clergyman’s son and grammar school boy, he had risen to the top through sheer brilliance and force of character. His disastrous marriage and jaw-dropping menage-a-trois with Lady Hamilton and her husband had shocked society.

But this one-eyed, one-armed dynamo had captured public hearts long before his death in his hour of victory at Trafalgar in 1805. Monuments started springing up immediately afterwards, but it was well over a decade before Parliament first raised the prospect of a national memorial in 1818.




Tribute

Even then, it was another 20 years before a Nelson Memorial Committee began seeking public funds for a monument in Charles Nash’s newly designed Trafalgar Square. MPs voted through a few thousand pounds, but most of the money came from individuals. The largest contribution came from a foreigner, the Tsar of Russia, whose £12,000 made up a quarter of the final £47,500 bill (more than £3 million today).

A hard-fought competition was won by William Railton’s design for a fluted Corinthian column of Devon granite crowned with Baily’s statue. Before hoisting Nelson aloft in 1843, the 14 stone masons involved held a celebratory dinner at the top. More than 100,000 people flocked to gawp at the statue at ground level.

But the project was far from complete. Four artists were commissioned to design the four bronze reliefs for the base block. Now lovingly cleaned and waxed to their original condition by bronze restorer Iain McLean, each depicts a great victory.

There are, in fact, five Nelsons on the column — one at the top and four at the bottom. To the west, we see Nelson — with two arms — at the 1797 Battle of Cape St Vincent.

To the north is the 1798 Battle of the Nile. By then, Nelson was already down to one arm and we see our agonised hero rejecting the doctor who has abandoned an injured sailor to nurse the Admiral’s bleeding eye.

Nelson had lost one eye attacking Corsica in 1794. Hit by shrapnel at the Nile, he initially believed he had lost the other as well. It turned out that a head wound had caused a flap of skin and a good deal of blood to fall into his good eye.

To the east, we see him stamping his despatch at the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen. And, just as his statue faces south, so does his final hour. Above an inscription of that immortal signal — ‘England Expects Every Man Will Do His Duty’ — is a five-ton relief of Nelson’s death.

Fallen sailors lie to the fore while the surgeon and Captain Hardy tend to the dying genius. Perhaps the most striking sight is that of a black sailor raising his musket to shoot back at the French sniper who has felled the great man — a particularly stirring image in the age of slavery.

It was to be another 20 years before the setting was completed, with the addition of Sir Edwin Landseer’s four bronze lions, each 12ft high and modelled on a dead zoo specimen. Nelson was not left in peace for long, though. In 1896, he was struck by a bolt of lightning, which bashed a chip out of his shoulder and raised concerns that his left arm might go the way of his right. So, the experts of the day wrapped bronze clamps around the surviving limb. There were also cracks around his feet.

The statue’s base was reinforced with two hefty bronze clips stretching the whole way around the column.

They have been patching him up ever since. I notice two bronze staples hammered into the statue base. Each is inscribed proudly with the words: ‘W Larkin. Steeplejack. 1919.’

Leading craftsmen are always keen to work on Nelson. "It’s a real pleasure being up here on such a famous national monument with the best view in the world," says stone mason Andy Midwinter, 34. "And you soon realise what a busy old square this is."

Previous repair jobs have involved a spray-clean and dollops of mortar to fill in the holes. But following a routine inspection last year, the Mayor of London’s staff decided it was time for a full overhaul. Nelson might be the ultimate all-British hero, but it was a Swiss insurance firm, Zurich, which volunteered to pick up the tab.

Scottish masons donated a block of original Craigleith stone for authentic crafted repairs. And having encased the column in scaffolding, the restorers decided to check the original measurements, not least to calculate the weight of the thing. Official records had decreed it was a full 185ft from Nelson’s tricorn hat to the pavement.

That figure had become a convenient shorthand for scale — we like to describe skyscrapers and ocean liners as multiples of Nelson’s Column.

But we are going to have to redo our maths. Using tape measures and lasers, Adrian Attwood was amazed to discover the official statistics were rubbish. That hat is, officially, 169ft and 5.8in above the ground (or, as Nelson’s old foe would put it, 51.659m).

Further laser studies have revealed that His Lordship’s arm was actually as tough as a ship’s biscuit. So, the bronze bandages have come off and the arm is back as Baily sculpted it.

Now, after several weeks of gentle steam, spray and careful indentation work, Nelson is unveiled once more to the world. Attwood’s parting tribute has been to recreate that remarkable night in 1843 and stage another masons’ banquet up at the top (menu: salmon and strawberries; dress: hard hats and fluorescent bibs).

I sincerely hope it is at least another 163 years before Lord Nelson has to entertain anyone else to dinner.

dailymail.co.uk
 
Nuggler
#2
Cool report Blackleaf:

Who's going to write Nelson's column when he dies?

 

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