Friday 20 November 2015

The Original Nelson’s Column, Portsdown Hill

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square has been a landmark in London since it was completed in 1843. It is just under 170 feet tall (including the statue of Nelson himself at the top) and the four sides of the pedestal carry relief panels that commemorate Nelson’s four great fleet actions – St.Vincent, The Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar – the bronze they are cast from being from French cannon captured in battle. It is guarded at its corners by four enormous bronze lions which were added in 1867. 
Trafalgar Square 1845
Nelson's Column under construction 1843
Photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot
The creation of the memorial, and of the square surrounding it, commemorated the 21 October 1805 battle which established British naval supremacy for over a century and which laid the foundation for the ultimate victory over Napoleon. Nelson’s death just after victory had been secured (“I thank God I have done my duty” were his last words) confirmed him as a national hero whose lustre has not faded to this day. Construction of the column was recorded in one of the earliest photographs taken in Britain. It was made by the great pioneers of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877).
Nelson's Needle
The massive strategic significance of the Trafalgar was recognised as much by Nelson’s contemporaries as by later generations and in the years after his death memorials were constructed to him in Edinburgh, Dublin, Birmingham, Liverpool and elsewhere. The earliest however, and the one that has the closest associations with Nelson himself, is perhaps the least known.

“Nelson's Needle”, is on the top of the steep Portsdown Hill, just north of Portsmouth, the city that was been the centre of British naval power for almost a thousand years. It stands exposed and lonely, all but surrounded by fields, the only building nearby being the half- hidden, half- underground 1860s-era Fort Nelson. The monument is an austere structure, a granite obelisk, 93 feet tall, its design based on 4th Century AD monuments in Axum, the ancient religious capital of Ethiopia. 

Nelson's bust at the top of the Needle
At the top, looking out over the Portsmouth, the Solent, the Isle of Wight and the Channel beyond – the starting and finishing point for so many of Nelson’s adventures – is a small bust of the man himself. A dignified inscription on a panel at the base bears the consecration.

The origin of the monument goes back to Nelson’s lifetime when, in 1799, Nelson's prize agent Alexander Davison campaigned to establish a memorial to “perpetuate the glorious victories of the British Navy” and “to honour Britain’s naval glory and pre-eminence”. It was, however, Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, that gave the impetus for construction. 

The “Needle” was built in 1807-08, in the immediate aftermath of the battle, and was paid for by a donation of two day’s pay by all who served on Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, at Trafalgar, as well as by prize money arising from it.  It is pleasing that even 210 years after Nelson’s death the masts and yards of the Victory can still be glimpsed from the monument in the dockyard where it is so lovingly preserved.

Today, by its relative isolation, the monument on Portsdown Hill is still moving in its austerity. In this its dignity contrasts with the tawdry state into which Trafalgar Square in London is so often plunged, especially since holding “Pop” concerts and other such events there involves blanking off much of Nelson Column’s base from view. It's as if an entire nation wants to turn its back on its past - I never pass Trafalgar Square now without a tinge of regret and sometimes of disgust.

The Victorians erected statues to heroes. Today statues are erected in honour of blue roosters.
One can only assume that some sort of condescending sneer at the past is implied.
There are four plinths in the square, the fourth until recently being kept unoccupied – possibly reserved for a statue of the Queen after her death. A recent decision is however that items of art are displayed on this plinth for several months, until replaced with another. One wonders what Nelson would have thought of this.  He would certainly have approved of the temporary display of the statue of Air Marshal Sir Keith Park, a kindred spirit who played a leading role in ensuring victory in both the Battle of Britain and the Battle of Malta. One doubts however if Nelson would have thought much of a 2014 occupant of the plinth – a huge blue rooster which looks like an overgrown toy from a child’s collection of cheap plastic farmyard animals. Why Nelson has had this inflicted on him is anybody’s guess! 

Interested in taking your own first steps towards writing fiction?

I'll be speaking at the Weymouth Leviathan Maritime Literary Festival in March next year and during it I’ll also be running a workshop on plot-development for aspiring writers. If you're interested in writing fiction yourself this might help you take the plunge! To mix metaphors, the proverb says that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. I hope we'll do better than that - perhaps workshop participants will get some ten miles along!  I'd be very happy if participants were to include fans of the Dawlish Chronicles novels and readers of my regular blogs. The festival - the first of its kind - promises to be a fascinating occasion. I'll be providing updates as details are firmed up but on the meantime, if you're in the UK in 12th-13th March period in 2016 please consider reserving a slot in your diary.

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