For generations, no trip to London has been complete without a photograph posed on top of Trafalgar Square’s lions.
But now this classic ritual is under threat amid concerns the 144-year-old sculptures guarding the base of Nelson’s Column are being irreparably damaged under the weight of tourists clambering on them.
An official report has warned that the public must be banned from mounting the venerable bronze beasts in order to save them. Officials say the issue is now under “careful review”.
The recommendation was made by specialist consultants asked to carry out surveys of the lions for the Greater London Authority (GLA), which has responsibility for the monuments.
As well as corrosion, rust, tarnishing and surface scratches, the inspectors also uncovered more serious problems. Cameras were sent inside the hollow structures and found “numerous examples of cracking” – as well as litter pushed in via holes in the mouths.
The thickness of the bronze was also measured. Parts of the south east facing lion were found to be just 0.2 inches thick, up to three times thinner than the same parts of the other lions, possibly as a result of having been worn down by visitors.
Other aspects of damage were more easily attributed to tourists. The same lion was seen to vibrate noticeably when visitors were moving on its back.
This is particularly concerning because the lions do not appear to be any bolts or fixings securing the sculptures to the plinths.
The inspectors warn that the rocking, combined with the effects of rust, could cause the lion’s torso join to “fail” under the continued weight of the public.
All four lions were found to have deep scratches running down their backs, some of which are so severe they have penetrated into the metal itself, rather than the wax covering layer.
In some cases, the scratches have been worsened by people sticking keys and coins into them.
The most serious damage has been to the tail sections – and that belonging to the north east facing lion in particular – and has been caused by people stepping onto them to clamber onto the backs of the statues – or even using them as a “spring board” to mount the lions.
The inspectors, who carried out surveys in 2009 and 2010, said, starkly, that if people continue to climb on the tails, they will collapse.
They conclude: “members of the public should not be allowed access to the lions.”
In response to the surveys, GLA officials admit that continuing to allow visitors would lead to the “near certainty at some point of future damage being caused”.
Officials have already considered how to introduce a ban, including plans to change local bylaws and issue heritage wardens who patrol the square with whistles which they could blow to discourage anyone attempting to mount the lions.
Such a system operates at tourist sites in Paris.
The officials have even investigated replacing the lions -it would cost £180,000 to obtain a new cast.
English Heritage has been asked for its views and has so far advised against a ban, instead recommending regular monitoring of the lions’ condition.
Richard Genn, a senior official at the GLA said some remedial work had been done since the reports were commissioned and that a new survey was scheduled to take place this summer, where the damage would be further assessed.
“Being bureaucrats we consider all options. One of those is restricting access. We have to consider it in the context of what is manageable and appropriate in terms of the public’s interaction with a public monument.
“The lions have done surprisingly well and at the moment we accept the situation as it is but are keeping it under careful review.”
According to legend, the lions, which are almost 20ft long and about 11ft tall, will come to life if Big Ben chimes 13 times. They are cast from bronze said to come from captured French cannons.
Their creation was beset by delays and prevarications and they were only installed in 1867 around 25 years after the completion of Nelson’s Column.
At one stage, they were to be carved from granite, but were eventually designed by sculptor Sir Edwin Landseer and were based on casts taken from a dead lion that belonged to the King of Sardinia.
When they were revealed, years late and £14,000 over their £3,000 budget, they were much ridiculed for the delay and the design.