on November 22, 2009
Having lived in London for about five years, on and off, it was probably high time that I visited the Tower of London. It’s one of London’s best-known tourist attractions and it’s for that reason that I kept putting off a trip there. Surely it would be packed out with annoying tourists after all? Not really my idea of a fun day out but we had a friend staying with us and we decided to take a chance and go on the August bank holiday. After lunch at the Market Coffee House near Liverpool Street Station, we caught a bus from Shoreditch High Street to Tower Hill and walked down the riverside to the entrance gate. We were advised that a Beefeater tour was starting in the next ten minutes so we patiently waited just inside the entrance for the tour to begin. The Yeoman Warders, as they are more formally known, (apparently the term ‘Beefeater" is derived from a time when they were permitted to eat beef from the king's table) are required to have served in the armed forces with an honourable record for at least 22 years. The tour is included in the ticket price and lasts about an hour. If you have the time it’s definitely worth going along as it’s an entertaining and informative introduction to the Tower. Our guide took us past Traitor’s Gate, the White Tower, the Bloody Tower, the ravens, and ended at the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula.We began by learning about the draining of the moat. Partly designed to flush out sewage into the tidal River Thames, it never quite fulfilled its purpose and under the Duke of Wellington’s watch in 1845, it was drained, thus eliminating the horrid stench, which must have permeated the area for quite some time. Much of the Tower of London’s history is gruesome to say the least, so the tour inevitably focuses on those poor souls who were imprisoned or lost their lives there. A few famous names include Anne Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes. Anne Boleyn also passed through Traitors’ Gate on her way into the Tower, as did Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII. Inside the walls of the Tower it now seems so tranquil and orderly it’s hard to imagine it as the place of terror and turmoil that it once was. Walking through the arch under the Bloody Tower our guide pointed out the Tower’s ravens. Apparently Charles II was the first king to insist that the ravens here should be protected and ever since, six ravens must be at the fortress or, according to legend, the kingdom will fall. They have their wings clipped though so there is some coercion in place. The tour continues up to the Tower Green, the site of executions of either high-ranking or popular individuals whose death would incite strong public opposition. The privacy at the Tower kept out the crowds who could attend public executions at Tyburn (close to present day Marble Arch) and nearby Tower Hill. Our tour ended at the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, the charming parish church, which dates from 1520. It is also the burial place of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and others who were executed at Tower Green. The chapel is still open to the public for Sunday services (Holy Communion at 9.00am and Matins at 11.15am). Entry can be found through the West Gate but if you wish to visit other parts of the Tower afterwards a ticket needs to be purchased. Our guide announced that the usual long queues for the Crown Jewels were not in evidence that day thanks to the Notting Hill carnival, which was evidently drawing the usual tourist crowds to west London instead that weekend. Venturing inside the Jewel House we found the beefeater to be right as we walked briskly through the holding areas and straight to the display. Nothing can quite prepare you for the dazzling array of crowns, orbs and scepters, which comprise some 23,578 gems. The Imperial State Crown alone is made up of over 2,800 diamonds and hundreds of other precious stones. The exhibition can be viewed by standing on a very slow moving conveyor belt, a sure-fire way to keep visitors moving. If you want to view them a second time, or from the other side though you can as there are two moving walkways on either side of the display cases. Until mid-January 2010, "An Introduction to Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill" exhibition runs in the White Tower. This phenomenal display of fine armour and weaponry for the king and his horses is also well worth seeing. You get an insight into the physique of the man and the warrior. Used in sport and in battle, the intricacy of some of the armour is outstanding and the sheer scale of some of the pieces makes you wonder how movement was even possible in such suits. From here we walked along the East Wall Walk where visitors can explore this inner wall and its four towers. Some of the stones in these towers are etched with the names of one-time prisoners and plaques explain the many and varied uses of the towers over the ages. A visit to the Tower of London is easily a day trip on its own and despite it’s relatively small size, there is so much to explore and read about you will want to get your money’s worth (£16 adult ticket). Tickets can also be purchased online which will save you waiting in line on the day. Food and drinks can be purchased inside the Tower but visitors can also bring their own food for a picnic if the weather permits.
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