The fountains in Trafalgar Square are about to spurt again, instead of dribbling…
They’ll reach 35 feet high – higher than anyone has seen it in at least 30 years. The three 50-year-old engines underground – which also houses a fridge-sized plastic tub filled with a year’s worth of coins scooped out of the basins – are now all running again. With their help the fountains could attain a height of 80 feet, a sight no one has ever seen. They will only dare test that on a completely still day: a breath of wind and they would drench Canada and South Africa houses.
The original Victorian fountains had nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with reducing the amount of open space and the risk of riotous assembly. The police post concealed inside a granite column in the corner, often wrongly called the smallest police station in London, was added in the great depression of the 1930s: it was linked directly to Scotland Yard and has slots through which the solitary occupant could fire on any rioters. The fountains, originally fed by an artesian well and run by steam engines from a control room behind the National Gallery, were generally damned as dribbling failures. The pathetic height of the plume was rudely compared to a beer bottle being opened.
In the late 1930s the decision was taken to replace them, with new stone basins designed by Edwin Lutyens, at a cost of almost £50,000. The party and opening ceremony by the Duke of Gloucester and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to wait until after the second world war – it was in 1948 and cost just under another £3,000. The old fountains were sold to Ottawa where they are still spluttering. This time the restoration work was essential because just one of the three pumps was keeping the 100,000 gallons of water circulating, and the old lights were constantly failing and having to be replaced at £1,000 a bulb.
The new lights are LED, will pay for themselves in saved energy, should last for decades and for the first time incorporate colours. In the small hours of recent mornings, homebound revellers must have wondered if they had seriously overindulged, as they came upon the fountains being put through their paces: green for St Patrick’s Day, red white and blue for St George, eerily glowing violet and blue just to see the effect.
Their first official performance will be from next week, when they light up every night in orange and lemon, like the bells of St Clement’s, to mark the month-long Story of London festival.