Tower of London review (Oct 2015)
This is an old review Read my most recent review here
They used to shut the gates when hordes of Londoners stormed the Byward Tower. They used to fire arrows at them and hurls rocks from the ballistas. Now they charge them twenty-five quid and give them a pair of headphones and a map. It's a lot easier to storm the Tower of London these days because they've bricked up Traitor's Gate and drained the moat. They can't fire arrows at us anymore because of health and safety. The only thing that remains the same is the horde of ugly peasants bundling up outside the gates -- there must be five hundred of them at least. The queues are a few families deep all the way down, with reinforcement tourists standing back and waiting to take their place. If you enjoy queueing then this is the place to go.
Once you've passed under the Byward Tower you'll enter Water Lane. Halfway up there is the famous Traitor's Gate. That's where they used to boat in all the prisoners and walk them up the stone steps and through the Bloody Tower arch. The water looks nice and still today but it's easy to imagine it steaming with a little green sludge as it floats in off the river. When the lanterns were illuminating the thirty foot wall in front all they could see was the Bloody Tower arch ahead, with a phalanx of foot guards lining the lane, but then it got worse... because when they passed under the portcullis the first thing they saw was the White Tower looming up above and it must have been as scary as hell! It's too sunny to be scared today though -- but I've done a Twilight Tour around here, so I know what this place is like at night.
Stepping through that Bloody Tower arch is a memorable moment the first time you do it. The Norman tower really is impressive the first time you see it up close, and when you clamber up the stone steps at the end to see the Tudor houses around Tower Green, and the church and chopping block with a few Yeoman Guards, then you will instantly forgive them the extortionate entry fee. So many things to see at once... but you have to pace yourself because this place will take you hours to see properly.
You'll probably want to see Tower Green first... because this is where they led out the heads to be separated from their necks. This is where they chopped up Anne Boleyn. There's no chopping block anymore though, just a glass pillow ornament and three million tourists all straining for a see. Behind that is the chapel where they buried the headless bodies.
I always like to start with the little exhibition inside the Bloody Tower, because that's where they keep all of their torture equipment. They've got a rack and manacles in there, and a scary looking iron frame that snaps your bones like pencils. I'm always hoping that they'll ask for volunteers to test them out, so I can push a couple of the annoying school kids to the front, but sadly all of the equipment has been decommissioned.
Every nation had its favourite way of killing people... the French built fantastic contraptions like the guillotine, whilst the Italians just went the DIY route and nailed up their Christians on a cross (after feeding them to the lions, of course). But we preferred to pop people's joints and stretch their bones till they strained in two. And burn them at the stake, of course -- and drown witches in a dunking stool. And hang them at Tyburn. And tie them to a stake and shoot them. We drowned a few pirates in the Thames as well -- we certainly mixed it up a bit. Other nations showed a distinct lack of imagination when it came to torture -- we tried everything. One of the people at the Tower was rammed into a wine barrel and drowned. He died like a cork.
I've always been a bit disappointed by St Thomas's Tower, because even though it's one of the most historic parts of the Tower, it's also one of the plainest. It dates back to the reigns of Henry III and Edward I in medieval times, so not a lot of original items survive -- you're basically just staring at the stonework and the inner wooden walls and floor, plus a few modern reproductions in the bedchamber.
This is a place for your imagination, aided by the whispered snippets of prayer coming out of the speakers -- so remember to bring your imagination along.
If you're following the same route as me then you should be walking around the curtain wall now, with its fine view of the White Tower and Tower Bridge. This will take you through the Langthorn Tower, Salt Tower and Martin Tower. This is where you can stand on the wooden platforms where the archers made rain on the attackers below. These days the only noise is coming from the steady stream of buses and cars passing over Tower Bridge, but it's not difficult to imagine them as London scum running over the ground towards the wall. I wouldn't mind firing a few arrows from up here myself -- it would be quite fun. There are a lot of targets on the Tower Bridge road.
If you peer down into the street below (the street inside the grounds of the Tower) then you can see the site of the old rifle range where they shot the German spies during World War II. This is where they lined them up against the wall and said auf wiedersehen.
The Martin Tower is where you'll get your first good look a crown -- but it's not the Crown Jewels. This is where they keep the crowns of old Royals like Victoria and George I, II and III. Most of the precious jewels have been removed so it's just the felt and frames on display, but they will give you a nice idea about what to expect when you see the real deal a bit later.
[Note: Just to give you an idea about how much stuff there is to see and read in this place... it has taken me two hours to get this far, and I haven't even seen the Crown Jewels or been inside the White Tower yet.]
You'll find the Crown Jewels inside Waterloo Barracks. This place always reminds me of a theme park ride, because once you're through the front door you have to walk around a huge queue-line reading little bits of info on the walls whilst you're waiting. There are a few pictures and a movie too, to keep your mind occupied, until finally you walk through a thick vault door into the Holy of Holies.
The jewels are all boxed-up inside bullet-proof glass, with a conveyor belt running along the floor to stop people lingering too long. They don't let you try them on either -- so don't get any funny ideas. If you were only expecting to see the Imperial State Crown and a few rings and trinkets then prepare for a surprise, because there is much more than that. It's a bit like Smaug's lair in the Lonely Mountain. They've got swords and spectres and spoons and plates and bowls and golden goblets, punch bowls, chalices... everything is encrusted with diamonds and sapphires and rubies and jewels. The Queen has got more bling than BA Baracus.
Inside the White Tower itself is a huge collection of arms and armour. They've had a bit of a shift around since the last time I came though, because the famous Line of Kings is now at the start. And it's not much of a line anymore either (they are going to have to change its centuries-old name). But it's still very impressive, and it's quite a thrill to see some suits of armour made for Henry VIII and Charles I. Upstairs is a collection of swords and shields, carbines and flintlock muskets, pistols and rifles, pikes and spikes, daggers and knives, and lots of other boy's toys.
As you're walking around all of the displays it's easy to forget about the building itself, so remember to have a look at the thick stone walls and ceiling. Sadly they don't have any real rooms inside (rooms that have been dressed exactly how they would have been, I mean) -- they have been stripped back to make space for the exhibition. They are basically just empty shells with benches and lights and modern pine planking on the floor, so it's difficult to get a sense of how it must have been in Norman times. The lower level seems to have been sacrificed to make way for the shop -- very disappointing. The only room that still looks like it was is the 800-year-old Chapel of St. John. But that is really the only criticism I can make of the entire place, because what they do have on show is well worth seeing.
So, to sum it all up then: I know it costs a lot to get inside, but I still think it's one of the must-see sights of London.
Guest – My Dad was in the Scots Guards in the early 1930's and was billeted in Wellington Barracks, he used to take part in the Keys Ritual he told me he used to do guard duty at Buckingham Palace, and the Bank of England, also took part in Trooping the Colour and was on the Mall for the Coronation of King George VI. The last time I visited the Tower was 1976 there was still water at Traitors Gate and no fancy pillow on the block, I hope the powers that be are not going to tart it up too much it looks a bit too pristine for my liking now.
Admin – I would loved to have seen it in the old days. Have you ever been to see the Ceremony of the Keys today? That ceremony is still totally unchanged -- it's the closest you can get to how it was -- so you can go and see what your dad did all those years ago. https://www.londondrum.com/blog/?b=170
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