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Network Rail, the people that own and operate Britain’s rail infrastructure (after someone sold it by mistake) say that 37 million people pass through London’s Charing Cross Station every year. That’s equivalent to the population of Uganda. It’s probably not the same 37 million people passing through every year, though I daresay one or two risk doing it several times, out of sheer devilment. But in any event a lot of them will also pass by this monument outside the station entrance, which commemorates a 700-year old love story.
When Eleanor of Castile, beloved queen of Edward I, died near Lincoln in 1290, the tough but distraught King of England ordered that a memorial should be built at every point where his wife’s body was rested on its long journey south for burial in London. Twelve memorials – or crosses – were built and last in line was one in the hamlet of Charing, just outside the King’s Palace of Westminster. The original Charing Cross stood where Trafalgar Square is now. The location marks the spot from which distances to London were calculated, but the Cross itself was pulled down by order of Parliament in 1647. Four of the regicides, those who signed King Charles I’s death warrant in 1649, were hanged, drawn and quartered on the site in 1660 and, in 1675, a statue of King Charles I on horseback was erected there – where it remains to this very day.
Though Eleanor’s memorial had gone, the name of the area, Charing Cross, stuck – though not derived from cher reine (dear queen) as some fancifully suggest but, as mentioned above, from the little settlement that once stood between the City of London and Westminster. (There is another Charing in Kent, by the way, near Ashford – a lovely village.) In any event, it was natural to name the nearby railway station, when it eventually arrived, Charing Cross. The South East Railway commissioned a recreated Eleanor Cross to celebrate the opening of the Charing Cross Hotel in 1865 and the result was a typically magnificent Victorian Gothic Thing in Portland and Mansfield stone, with Aberdeen granite, that stood 70 feet high and cost about £1,800.00. By the turn of the millennium, that monument was in a poor state of repair and Network Rail, successors to the South East Railway, set about renovating it at a reported cost of £350,000. The original cost Edward I about £700 at 13th century prices.
So there it is. It is lovely. But each time I pass it, it has been surrounded by cars, bikes, contractors’ rubbish – even a skip. You have to ask why such a fuss was made about renovating the thing if it’s going to be treated with such little respect. The real villains of course, were the members of parliament, early examples of heritage hooligans, who ordered the original Charing Cross to be pulled down. There are three surviving original Eleanor Crosses, at Waltham, Hardingstone and Geddington. You can read a bit about two of them, and the love story, by visiting Eleanor’s Cross, Hardingstone and Eleanor’s Cross Geddington. I have often wondered what Eleanor of Castile looked like; I like to imagine that she must have been very beautiful.