Sunday, 26 August 2012

How Much Nelson Stuff Could I See in One Day?

This was the question that needed answering.  And so, I put together an itinerary of a sightseeing tour of all things Nelson in London, and dragged a long-suffering friend along for the ride.

St Paul's Cathedral - Nelson's Tomb and Statue
We met up outside the cathedral at 8.30am.  This may seem a ridiculously early time, but I wanted to get there before the crowds.  Still, even though the cathedral had only just opened, it wasn't long before waves of tourists started pulsing through.  So we paid our money, and rushed down to the crypt, warning my friend that he had better not say anything condescending or mocking to me while we were there!  
This might sound weird, but I love the crypt.  It's cool, the lighting is soft, and atmospheric music floats through from a nearby chamber (I don't know what's actually through there).  I've been before, but the feeling I got from approaching the tomb was still the same.

 Nelson's motto, part of the mosaic on the floor at the head of his tomb.
 Nelson's famous final signal at the battle of Trafalgar.  Or, it would be, but annoyingly it's wrong.  The actual signal was "...will do his duty."  In other words, Nelson was expressing his faith in his fleet, his confidence that they would do their duty.  It was a morale-booster.  " do his duty" sounds more like an order, like "this is what we are expecting of you, so do it."

For me, it's a strangely emotional experience, and something that I don't think anyone can understand without feeling it themselves.  Being so close to the man, the hero, that I have studied and idolised for so long.  Being in the crypt, alone, in the quiet, just inches from him.  But not quite the same this time, being with my friend, who was insistent that I should have my picture taken 'hugging' the tomb...

I drew the line at a photo of me kneeling in worship, however, much to his disappointment.
Lucky we got there when we did, for we had only a few minutes of quiet contemplation (and photo ops) with his Lordship before a group of tourists, complete with a guide, appeared in the Duke of Wellington's tomb chamber next door.  
I then pointed out the headstone of Nelson's brother and sister-in-law who are buried in the same chamber.  They're apparently buried directly under the one spot which everyone who wants to get close to Nelson's tomb must cross over, and so the lettering is almost worn away.  Weirdly, the plaque on the wall for them is at the opposite side of the tomb and on the wall facing away from it.
I then embarked on a quest to find the tomb of Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, which I knew was also down there.  But, after a complete circuit of the crypt, I still couldn't find it.  My friend got bored and went back upstairs, while I had another look round.  I finally found it, in Nelson's chamber, in a sort of alcove.  I think the reason I missed it was because it's so plain, just big and rectangular and stone.  There isn't a plaque, his name is inscribed very simply on the top of it.
Happening to find myself temporarily alone, I quietly savoured being in his Lordship's presence for a couple more minutes, then went back upstairs.
My next mission was to find the memorial statue of Nelson which I knew was here... somewhere.  I completed an entire circuit of the cathedral without finding it.  I did see plenty of other beautiful statues including one for Collingwood and, unexpectedly, one for William Hoste, one of Nelson's favourite proteges:
Puzzled and frustrated, I went and sat with my friend for a bit.  He hadn't bothered following me around, and after I'd rested sent me on my way once more.  This time, I managed to find it!  From the direction I'd been travelling around, it was behind a pillar, and somehow I'd passed it without looking back at it.  Worse, I'd been sitting opposite it, looking at it across the large open space of floor under the dome.  I know you're not really supposed to take photos there, but using my crazy ninja skills, I ducked behind the opposite pillar and sneaked my camera out, took the picture and then vanished into the shadows before I was seen...
I think it's a really beautiful statue.  The detailing on it is exquisite.  Nelson stands proudly on a pedestal beside an anchor and rope.  Below are a British lion, gods of the sea, and Britannia inspiring a young boy by showing him the image of the hero.

Next was a short walk down Fleet Street and the Strand to...

Trafalgar Square and The National Portrait Gallery
At this point I was about to pass out from hunger but we popped in to the NPG and I remembered where Nelson's portrait is, so we weren't in there long.
The portrait is by William Beechey and was one of the last Nelson sat for.  Unlike earlier portraits, in which he tends to look thin, drawn and poorly (which he was most of the time), in this one he looks a little more 'filled out' and healthy.  Though, also unlike earlier portraits, he looks less 'adonised'.  You can also see the ^ shaped scar above his right eye which he got from being wounded at the Battle of the Nile, and which he would always try to hide with a lock of hair.  The portrait hanging beside it is one of Emma Hamilton, Nelson's mistress, which shows how beautiful she was and makes it easy to see why Nelson fell in love with her.
After spending far too much on food for lunch (London prices!) we moved on through Trafalgar Square, the most obvious Nelson sight-seeing opportunity, and down Whitehall.  
I like Nelson's Column.  Nelson is placed so that he faces the old Admiralty building, the Thames, and then waaaaay beyond that, Victory at Portsmouth.  It's such a big and recognisable monument and one of the most distinguishing London landmarks, which I think is a fitting tribute to someone who had such an instrumental role in protecting England and making it what it is today.

Next on the itinerary was...

Westminster Abbey and Nelson's Waxwork Effigy 
This is what I was looking forward to most of all.  The museum here has a bunch of waxwork funeral effigies.  I'd read that the Nelson one was such a good likeness of him that when Emma Hamilton saw it, she would have kissed it if the paint on the face hadn't still been drying.  
There was a bit of a queue to get in, and we debated whether we'd have time to wait.  In the end, it was only about 20 minutes before we were in.  The Abbey felt, to me, a little cluttered.  There are statues and ornaments everywhere and, in contrast to St Paul's, there's no big open space.  There were also rope barrier things that made it impossible to cut straight across to the entrance to the museum, and force you to wind around the building along with the tourists and their loud audioguides.
But, finally reaching the museum and eagerly searching the dimly-lit chamber, I was not disappointed.  The waxwork is as good as I'd imagined - better, even.  I find that each portrait portrays a different side to Nelson and he doesn't look quite the same in any of them.  In the waxwork, however, I found 'my' Nelson.  I could well believe that this was a good likeness and this was indeed exactly how he looked, down to the stern expression and irresistable gaze.  All the clothes it is dressed in were Nelson's own, including the hat with the green eye-shade that had been sewn in to shield his eye from the glare of the sun.  I was a little surprised by how slender he was.  I knew he hadn't been tall, but he really was very wiry too.
 The lighting was quite dim and the waxwork is in a glass case so I couldn't use the flash of the camera, so the pictures have come out quite dark.
This is my favourite photo of the day :^)

Leaving the Abbey, we walked down the river to Embankment, just missing getting caught in an absolutely torrential downpour, to get on a boat to... 

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Just past the Cutty Sark in Greenwich is the Old Royal Naval College, which was once Greenwich Hospital for Seamen.  We were beginning to be a little short on time, so went straight to the Painted Hall.  Here, surrounded by magnificent paintings on the walls and ceiling, is a plaque that marks where Nelson's body lay in state before continuing its procession up the Thames to St Paul's.  There is also a little memorial to Admiral Collingwood.

 We also came across a rather nice bust of Nelson in the entrance hall.
Then across the road to our last stop of the day...

The National Maritime Museum
What with being between the Olympics and Paralympics, and with some event apparently being staged next to the museum, we were required to be scanned and have our stuff x-rayed, by army officers.  So that was fun.
The lighting of the entrance to the museum is very... blue.  A quick look at the map told me which way to go to find the Nelson stuff.  I was a bit surprised at how little was there.  Mostly just a few paintings on the wall and an 'interactive' exhibit (some touch-screen thing), in a small-ish room with random model ships and some stuff about the Thames (admittedly, I didn't look at that stuff that much... does it show?).  But I cannot express how happy I was that Nelson's Trafalgar coat was on display!  I'd thought it was hidden away to keep it safe and preserved.  But there it was.  Not particularly impressed, my friend wandered off, while I stood somewhat in awe. And attempted to take pictures which again, with it being in a glass case in a dark room and with well-lit paintings on the wall behind me, didn't come out too well.
There was something quite surreal about looking at the coat Nelson wore as he paraded the quarterdeck of Victory amongst the deafening roar of gunshot, the screams of the wounded and dying, the thick smoke of the guns and the stench of gunpowder and blood, while splinters and bullets flew past him and people he knew were killed around him.  You can also see the small hole from the bullet that killed him, and the damage to the epaulette caused by the shot.  The bullet apparently tore through the epaulette and carried it with it through Nelson's shoulder, down to tear the pulmonary artery, damage his spine and finally lodge in his back.  The bullet was later removed with the piece of epaulette still attached.  Surreal, and poignant.
Nelson's stockings are displayed with his coat.  They are stained with the blood of John Scott, Nelson's secretary, who was killed while standing beside Nelson earlier in the battle.
 Portrait of Nelson by Lemuel Abbott.
 The Apotheosis of Nelson.
 Nelson's funeral procession.
A piece of Victory's flag, which was on Nelson's coffin at his funeral and torn to pieces by seamen who wanted to keep a bit.

This is a close-up of the left shoulder of the coat.  There's a lot of reflection on the glass, but you can see the bullet hole.

I then went on to spend far too much money in the gift shop.  I'm a total sucker for a gift shop.


  1. That sounds like a great day out! Can I come with you next time? lol :)