Ceremony of the Keys, at the Tower of London review
One of the best things about going to the Ceremony of the Keys is that you get to see a little bit of London at night. It starts at half-past nine, but if you take the tube to Tower Hill five minutes beforehand then you really are missing out on a treat. So take a tip from me -- go for a bit of a walk along the river beforehand.
There's not much to do around the Tower of London at that time of night -- practically all of the shops are shut -- but it still looks quite pretty. I got there half-an-hour early and there was absolutely no one around. Everything was shut up, so it was just me sitting outside the Tower of London late at night. Just the yellow lamplights and me. That was quite atmospheric right there, before anything even happened.
As you approach 9.30 PM the Yeoman Warder (aka 'Beefeater') comes to open the gate and let you all in. There was probably about 30 people in our group, but that rapidly swelled to a couple of hundred once we got inside (as I will explain later). But for the first bit of the night we stayed in your little group of 30, so you don't have to worry about not being able to hear anything. Our guide was an ex-Welsh Guard called Mitch, dressed up in the red tunic and black hat of the Chelsea Pensioners, and being an ex-soldier he had a deep booming voice and we could probably have stood about a mile away and still heard him okay.
The whole thing is extremely atmospheric. The Tower is totally empty of guests at this time of night, there is absolutely nobody around expect you and the soldiers taking part. The whole place is dark and moody with yellow lamplights in the windows. I've been to the Tower plenty of times during the day, but it wasn't until I went to this ceremony after hours that I really appreciated what it must have been like all those years ago. It's a pretty spooky place.
A little bit of advice: if you want to get the best view of the ceremony then it's important that you take up a good position at this point. Your group is only small, but you definitely want to be standing right on the edge of the kerb (which will be at the front of the group). And try and get as close as possible to the righthand side of the group as well, so you can see through the arch that leads past the Bloody Tower. You want to be able to see through that arch, and all the way back down the road where you've just come from -- all the way back to the Byward Tower. If you can see those two things then you have done well.
Once you have lined-up on the kerb the Warder will tell you all about the ceremony... exactly what happens, and in which order. It's quite a quick little ceremony and it goes on all around you, so you might want to have a little listen to get the most out of it. It's also at this point in time that your little group might swell with another 200 guests. He told us that they were the corporate people out on a jolly. But luckily they all take a position across the road and behind you, so they shouldn't get in the way.
The ceremony starts with a single Yeoman Warder, who enters stage-left with an old-fashioned lantern. You can see him way off in the distance at the Middle Tower (where you came in). He will walk all the way down to Traitor's Gate and wheel left, into the arch by the Bloody Tower, where he picks up an escort of four armed Foot Guards. They will then march back to the Middle Tower and lock it. Then they'll lock the Byward Tower too, and start coming back. At this point another soldier who has been standing guard to your right will come forward, lower his gun and challenge them with a deep and booming shout "Halt, who comes there!" The Warder replies "The Keys!" "Who's keys?" he says. "Queen Elizabeth's keys!" That is the password that lets them all through and he says "Pass Queen Elizabeth's Keys, and all is well".
The soldiers will halt a short distance from the stone steps in front of you, and you will see the famous old White Tower looming up on your right. The next section takes place in the shadow of the White Tower, and I thought it was especially atmospheric. Remember that the whole place is dark and in shadow, with just some lazy yellow lights to see by, and to have the White Tower suddenly loom up on your right is quite a thing.
After that the show is effectively over. The soldiers will march off and your guide will lead you to the exit. The whole thing takes no more than half-an-hour from start to finish, with the actual ceremony lasting just 10 minutes. But you've just got to do it. Just remember to apply for your tickets in plenty of time, because I requested mine in May for a date in November -- that's how far in advance you have to apply. Usually you are looking at least a two-month wait.
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