Trafalgar Square, now happily cleared of traffic, has been revived as the real centre of London, a gathering place and a photo studio for tourists still happy to see the pigeons that the mayor has tried so hard to drive off. Standing tall at its height is the National Gallery, looking down towards the sentinel Nelson. Were this the Continent, its inevitable church would be, if not in this spot, then certainly nicely aligned with it. But this is London, with its ancient liberties and rights, so St Martin-in-the-Field, with its grand classical frontage, is tucked off to the side, at an odd angle, fine, but less than finely displayed.
As A.R. Hope Moncrieff explained in 1910: “At the date of Nelson’s crowning victory, a narrow, dirty lane of mean houses led by the Church of St Martin’s, that once could be rightly described as ‘in the fields’. ‘Hedge Lane’ too, ran north beyond the site of the National Gallery, not begun until 1832; and about this time the square came to be cleared from unsightly buildings known as the King’s Mews.”
But St Martin still manages to cut an imposing figure, one that will be familiar to many American and Irish visitors, for its Italian-trained Scottish architect, James Gibb, with his influential The Book of Architecture, set the pattern for a whole generation of ecclestiastical structures.