Few symbols of this great city are more enduring and compelling than the Tower of London, which is actually a walled and moated compound consisting of a profusion of 20 towers built over more than 2 centuries on a site once occupied by a Roman fort. I’ve now visited this landmark three times during various journeys to London, and each encounter has brought new surprises. I’m sure the tradition will continue as we plan future trips to introduce our grandchildren to London and its treasures.
To reach the Tower of London, take a city bus or tour bus so that your first glimpse of this magnificent compound is from the Tower Bridge as you cross the Thames. Buses deposit visitors just opposite a stretch of the ancient wall that once surrounded Roman Londinium. The wall doesn't look like it would deter many barbarians these days, but it is nonetheless an impressive reminder of London’s antiquity. When construction began on the Tower in 1078, the wall must have still held a good bit of its original majesty.
When you’re ready to leave, there’s tube station on Tower Hill. The tube is the quickest way back to your hotel or your next destination.
Alighting from the bus between the Tower itself and Tower Hill allows visitors to gain a better sense for the huge size of this royal property. Begun by William the Conqueror to defend and govern his new realm, the Tower was designed to be impregnable—and in fact, it served that purpose well.
The air on Tower Hill’s Trinity Green is alive with the ghosts of England's often bloody past. Indeed, by rights, the Tower and its hill should have the highest concentration of dissatisfied and distressed spirits of any piece of real estate in the whole of the United Kingdom. The lives and deaths of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, and Sir Thomas More are part and parcel of both the historical record and popular culture. Each met an untimely end in this place. The shades of those who either died violently within the walls of the Tower or were executed on nearby Trinity Green may or may not walk the earth, but the horror of their deaths—whether by beheading, hanging, or being drawn and quartered—can still be felt.
The Tower Tour
An hour-long tour conducted by one of the 40-odd blue-and-red liveried Yeoman Warders introduces visitors to the Tower’s geography and history. These Warders (otherwise known as "Beefeaters") serve the Tower as Extraordinary Members of the Queen's Bodyguard, and all are veteran warrant officers with at least 22 years of military service. Despite their role as tour guides, these are serious professionals who honor the tradition of security and service associated with their position. Their tours are often peppered with easy humor designed to make visitors from the far-flung corners of the empire feel welcome and included in the history and pageantry of the Mother Country.
Thanks to our various Warders, we’ve learned a good deal about the history of the Tower, each tour being slightly different in how a fairly standard set of featured lessons will be recited. It was from the Warders, for example, that we learned about the princes of the Tower—the two young sons of Edward IV (d. 1483) who "disappeared" shortly after their father’s death. It was widely assumed that they had been murdered to clear the path of succession for their uncle, Richard III. Nearly 2 centuries later, the remains of two children believed to be the princes were found under stairs on the south side of the White Tower. The remains were removed and properly interred in Westminster Abbey.
We also learned about Mint Street, which once housed the Royal Mint; the Bell Tower, where Henry VIII imprisoned Sir Thomas More and where Mary I imprisoned her half-sister Elizabeth; the Bloody Tower, where Sir Walter Raleigh was held by James I for 13 years; and the Brick Tower, where William Wallace (Braveheart himself) was imprisoned.
Our Warders intrigued us with the history of the Tower Green and the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, where Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Jane Grey are buried, including poignant stories about their lives and deaths. We learned that the remains of over 1,500 victims of the executioners rest beneath the floor of the chapel, which has been called "one of the saddest spots on earth." Weekly worship services are still conducted in the chapel, largely for the Warders and their families.
The White Tower, a block of light-colored stone, is the heart of the Tower complex. It is the largest and best fortified of the 20 towers on this site, constructed by order of William the Conqueror as his personal residence. Indeed, for more than 500 years, it was the principal residence of the kings and queens of Britain. The weathervane on the turret at each corner of the White Tower still fly the royal standard, indicating that this structure remains a royal palace, though it is no longer a residence.
And it was from the Warders that we learned the details surrounding the legend of the Tower Ravens. Accordingly, as long as ravens inhabit the Tower of London, the White Tower—and by logical extension, England—will not fall. Being a practical people, the British ensure that the ravens will remain by clipping their wings and providing a Ravenmaster to ensure their well-being. The ravens currently inhabiting the tower were collected from various sites in Scotland and Wales as well as England, and all are individually identified by a color-coded leg bands.
Exploring on Your Own
After the guided tour disbands, visitors to the Tower are free to wander on their own. Most of the towers and other structures are at least partially open to the public, which allows visitors to conduct self-guided tours of those aspects of the compound that interest them most.
We’ve used this time, for example, to file past the Crown Jewels housed in Waterloo Barracks, where our senses were assaulted by room after room of gold and silver spheres and orbs, scepters, swords, and christening fonts—not to mention the Imperial State Crown and assorted jewels and ornaments. Before my first viewing of the Crown Jewels, it never occurred to me that there might be an important ceremonial role for a golden coronation spoon.
One of my favorite memories of time spent strolling with Himself on the Tower’s Wall Walk, enjoying its many wonderful views. As we stood on the walk in 1999, we saw the Concorde fly overhead—one of those marvelous moments when past and present merged. And, of course, now ever the Concorde belongs to the past. Our strolls along the walk introduced us to an area containing a number of small private dwellings. After that first glimpse, we learned that about 150 people (mostly Yeoman Warders and their families) still live inside the Tower—what an amazing community environment that must be! I wonder if their peace is ever disturbed by the dissatisfied spirits that by rights must wander the precincts of the Tower compound.
Another vibrant memory of time in the Tower involves a tale of personal loss and recovery. During my to the Tower in 2003, I wore a gold-and-black opal-inlaid bracelet given me by Himself. As I walked along the Tower Green, I noticed my bracelet was missing and immediately began back-tracking my steps. Having no luck, I left particulars and contact information with the local equivalent of Lost and Found and rejoined my family. Brooding under my private dark shadow, I decided to check back one last time before I left the grounds. Greeted with an excited official, I was sent in search of a Warder near the Bloody Gate. Digging into the deep pockets of his uniform (each of which was in truth the equivalent of a sizable purse), he pulled out item after item—chewing gum, crumpled banknotes, change, a candy bar, and finally, my bracelet. He presented it graciously and with good cheer, advising me to take better care.
Wherefores and By-the-Ways
When visiting the Tower, it’s a good idea to acquire tickets off site. Tickets may be purchased in advance via Internet and telephone: +44 (0)870 756 6060. Some hotels and tour bus operations offer tickets at a slight discount. These pre-purchased tickets save visitors from waiting in long lines, particularly those of the high tourist season. There are also a number of tourist passes that include free or discounted admission to the Tower.
Gate prices for the 2005 season are £14.50 for adults, £11 for seniors, and £9.50 for children.
From March through October, the Tower is open from 9am until 6pm, Tuesday through Saturday, and from 10am to 6pm on Sunday and Monday.