Fountains & Tulips
‘I want to talk to you about ducts’ – Brazil
The fountains in Trafalgar Square are spurting again instead of dribbling. Well, we’re all getting old. They now reach 35 feet high. 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 all running again. With their help the fountains can attain a height of 80 feet, a sight no one has ever seen. The engineers 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 apparently 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, pay for themselves in saved energy and for the first time incorporate colours.
The fountains now glow green for St Patrick’s Day, and red, white and blue for St George’s Day. Their first official performance was when they lit up in orange and lemon, like the bells of St Clement’s.
The London Eye, the top of the Shard and the Telecom Tower all change their lights for different occasions, pink for St Valentine’s Day and blue and white for the NHS. Banks in the Square Mile are starting to do the same thing, but only at the tips of the roofs.
Richard Fosters’ plan to build the theme-park styled Tulip Tower has been rejected by the Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, because it’s felt that the design is of insufficient quality for such a prominent location, and that the tower would result in harm to London’s skyline and impact views of the nearby Tower of London World Heritage Site. Three cheers for common sense.