Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Where is the centre of London and why it is there

Photo by J.A.Alcaide

For some reason, people are really interested about where the centre of London is. This is a question that stumps even most Londoners. It might be the Eros at Piccadilly Circus, St Paul's Cathedral perhaps. What about the Buckingham Palace or Westminster?

Well, the centre of London lies to the south of Trafalgar Square, just right behind the relatively inconspicuous weather beaten equestrian statue of Charles I, marked by a brass plate.

Photo by pdg

According to Tom Quinn's London's Strangest Tales, Edward the Confessor (1003 - 1066), unable to fulfill his vow to make a pilgrimage to Rome, sought to enlarge the small monastery at Thorney Island (now known to us as Westminster) to be the present day Westminster Abbey. With that, the seat of government was moved to Westminster.

Now, back in the 11th century, Westminster was barely a small raised area above the marshes of the Thames. Merchants of the City were reluctant to follow Edward's lead and move to Westminster. Thus whenever the legislators at Westminster would like to listen in to the ongoings of the City or the merchants would like to know more about state affairs, they would congregate at the halfway point - Charing Cross.    

One might think that the centre of London would be marked by a grander monument. In fact, it once was. In 1290, Queen Eleanor was taken ill while on the way to Scotland to meet her husband, King Edward. She died shortly thereafter near Lincoln. Grief stricken, King Edward ordered twelve giant memorial crosses to be built along her funeral procession routes and the one at London sat right on top of the centre of London, Charing Cross.

Queen Eleanor's memorial cross in London, which some conveniently called the Charing Cross, was later replicated and moved to the present location just outside the Charing Cross railway station in 1865 so as to drum up publicity for the newly opened railway station. The centre of London is thus marked with a brass plate since then. Apparently, the brass plate has a practical use these days - government officials who work within a 6 mile radius of the brass plate are entitled to extra allowance. And I suspect the occupants of the Westminster are included in the lot as well.

So if anyone asks about the centre of London, just point them to the brass plate behind Charles I's statue across the road south of Trafalgar Square.

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