Of all delightful places to meet memories of famous bygone people, the most intriguing is the Strand. A superficial glance at this modern bustling street shows little of the past still clinging about it. But a little further on you will discover, if you look for them, a bit of Roman London, a Renaissance chapel, a statue with a history, a lovely group of eighteenthcentury houses, the water gate of a former fine mansion on the riverside, and a church that links us to the time of the Danish invasion.
The Londoner would probably tell you that Piccadilly Circus is the centre of his city; the historian, St. Paul’s; but to the foreigner, the visitor from overseas, or to the Anglo-Indian back from the East, the centre will always be Charing Cross.
It has been a starting-point for the traveller from the days when the little old village of Charing was used as a halting-place on the way to the City or to the Royal Palace of Westminster. Probably that is the true derivation of the name; “La Charrynge “meant the Turning, the great bend where the two roads met, but a prettier tradition derives its name from Edward L’s dear queen (“chere Reine “). Another cross to her memory once stood here, the most beautiful of all those set up by the sorrowing king wherever her bier rested on its journey from Grantham to Westminster Abbey. Cromwell’s Parliament, with its passion for destruction, pulled it down in 1647, and the column which now stands in the courtyard in front of the station is only a memorial modelled as far as possible on the original design. It was set up by Barry about sixty years ago, but it is already so weather-beaten that many people are under the amiable delusion that it is the very cross erected in 1291.
The exact position of the old cross is now covered by King Charles I. on horseback, facing the scene of his death in Whitehall, and this statue has had an even more adventurous history.
It was cast originally in 1633 and after the king’s execution it became so unpopular that Parliament sold it to a brazier to be melted down. With an eye to the possibilities of the future that a diplomat might envy, this man cannily buried the statue and did a roaring trade with the Royalists in relics supposed to have been made from the fragments. After the Restoration the statue quietly came to light again, and was set up in its present position in 1674 with popular rejoicings. Its tribulations were not yet over. The day of the burning of Her Majesty’s Theatre, the sword, a real one of the period, that hung at the side, was broken off, and it has never been replaced.
Another curious thing about this statue lies in the absence of girths to the saddle or trappings on the horse, and it is said that when this oversight was pointed out to the sculptor Le Sueur, he was so overcome with mortification that he committed suicide on the spot.
In the days when London was no bigger than one of our second-rate provincial towns, Charing Cross was its market square. Here stood the pillory, even as late as the beginning of the last century; here were read the Royal proclamations, and here were the booths of the showmen who dealt in giants and fat ladies,-it was here, too, that Punch made his first appearance in England in 1666. Where the railway station now stands was Hungerford Market, and Trafalgar Square occupies the yard of what were once the Royal Mews, where the king’s falcons were kept till they were replaced by the king’s horses. It is rather odd that the word “mews “is now always associated with stables, for it once meant the pens or coops in which moulting falcons were kept (from the French muey-to moult). Geoffrey Chaucer, who lodged at Westminster, was in his time Clerk of the King’s Works and of the Royal Mews.