Paying respects to the hero of Trafalgar Square
To the British mind, there never were wars like the Napoleonic Wars, and there never were heroes like the men who defeated Bonaparte. This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, which makes it a very good year for travelers in England to pay their respects to Lord Horatio Nelson, the English admiral who trounced Napoleon's fleet once and for all a full 10 years before the Battle of Waterloo.
Thousands of tourists feed the pigeons and pose with the enormous bronze lions in London's Trafalgar Square without ever giving a thought to Lord Nelson gazing down at them with his one good eye from the top of his tall Corinthian column. At more than 17 feet in height the likeness is London's largest, most famous, and most ignored statue. Trafalgar Square, laid out a quarter century after the battle, says more about the way the English people revered Nelson's legend that it does about the man himself. Getting close to the admiral requires a little leg work.
To get an idea of what he looked like, leave Trafalgar Square and walk up Whitehall to Westminster Abbey. Beyond the Abbey cloisters, in what remains of the original Norman undercroft, is a good small museum containing wax funerary effigies of important persons buried within the Abbey. Among these is a delicate, pensive, unconventionally handsome figure of Nelson, who is in fact buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.
When 19th-century curiosity seekers deserted the Abbey for the attraction of Nelson's tomb at St. Paul's, the vergers of the Abbey added this fine effigy to their waxworks in a successful attempt to woo the crowds -- and their money -- back to Westminster. The figure has an empty sleeve, for Nelson lost his right arm in an abortive attack on Tenerife, but does not wear an eye patch. The wound which blinded Nelson's right eye did not destroy the eye itself, and few could tell by looking at him which eye was sightless.
A mile down the River Thames from Westminster Abbey, just opposite the new National Theatre complex, is an imposing neoclassical building known as Somerset House. In Nelson's time it housed the offices of the Admiralty where he spent many happy days, and here his small, dapper ghost is said to have been sighted hurrying across the quadrangle as though it had something of great importance to attend to.
For those who must limit themselves to London, a taste of the Battle of Trafalgar can be had at Madame Tussaud's famous museum where the engagement, as seen from the gundeck of Nelson's ship, has been elaborately reconstructed. But it's no substitute for the real thing. Far better to catch a train at Waterloo Station bound for Portsmouth (approximately 2 1/2 hours) to see for yourself the splendid man-of-war from which Nelson commanded the British fleet.
Permanently berthed in Portsmouth's dockyard, the aptly-christened Victory is gorgeously restored to the time of Trafalgar. The sensation of history on board is nearly overwhelming. Modern young sailors guide visitors through the cramped decks where crewmen slept in rough hammocks slung over the guns, and through Lord Nelson's elegant suite of cabins where his own cot was hung with embroidered Chinese silk.
A brass plate on the quarterdeck marks the place where the admiral, an easy target in his many medals, was felled by a sniper's bullet fired from the rigging of an enemy vessel. Nelson was carried to midshipman's quarters near the sick bay, where he died just a few hours after hearing that the battle was won.
Spectators turned out in droves for one last glimpse of the great commander as he lay in state at Greenwhich. Today the beautiful Painted Hall where Nelson lay in the Royal Naval College is open to the public on most afternoons. Greenwich is also now the home of the National Maritime Museum, just across the road, where a recently remodeled gallery of Nelsoniana contains mementos of the admiral, Lady Emma Hamilton and their daughter Horatia, as well as magnificent paintings of his many naval engagements and souvenirs of his spectacular funeral.
From Greenwich Nelson's body was taken in a golden barge up the Thames to London for burial. Thousands upon thousands of mourners silently lined the route from Whitehall to St. Paul's, a distance of more than two miles, to watch a procession so long and elaborate that the final carriages had not yet left the starting line by the time the first mounted regiment had reached the cathedral. Nelson's tomb remains one of the primary attractions in the crypt of St. Paul's. The Victory's flag was to have been buried with the admiral, but in the last moments at his graveside sailors from the Victory seized the banner and tore it to shreds, each man stuffing a scrap inside his shirt by which to remember the best loved of all English heroes.
Museum Schedules: Norman undercroft, Westminster Abbey, daily 9:30-5, entrance fee. Madame Tussaud's Waxworks Museum, daily 10-5:30, entrance fee. Victory Museum, Portsmouth, daily 10-5 (closed Sunday morning), entrance fee for museum but H.M. Victory free. Royal Naval College, Greenwich, daily 2:30-5 except Thursdays, free. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, weekdays 10-5 and Sunday 2:30-5, free. St. Paul's Cathedral Crypt, weekdays 10:45-3:30 (until 6 during summer), entrance fee.