diamond geezer

 Friday, May 29, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Jewel Tower

Location: Abingdon Street, Westminster SW1P 3JX [map]
Open: daily (10am-5pm)
Admission: £3
Brief summary: small remnant of medieval Westminster
Website: www.english-heritage.org.uk
Time to set aside: half an hour

Jewel TowerSome tourist attractions sound more exciting than they really are. The Jewel Tower is one such place. They're right about the tower bit, but the jewels are long gone. One wonders how many foreign tourists take one look at the queue snaking out of Westminster Abbey nextdoor and decide instead to spend their valuable time visiting its exciting-sounding neighbour. They must be terribly disappointed. But if you come to look at the building, not its contents, you shouldn't be too upset.

The Palace of Westminster was the pre-eminent site of power in medieval London. Much of it survived until a very serious fire in 1834, after which only three fortunate corners remained. One of these was Westminster Hall, another was the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel, and the third was the Jewel Tower (which lay beyond the palace garden, far enough away from the flames). To pay a visit to this lucky remnant, find Westminster's non-Big-Ben end and then walk across College Green (where TV cameras wait patiently to interview anxious MPs). Tread down the steps and try not to fall in the remains of the moat (look, it still goes under the road towards the palace proper). Once inside, first stop is the shop.

Jewel Tower windowAfter the nice lady has taken your money (I got the nice lady, you may not be so lucky), the tour begins two floors up. To get there requires ascent of a stone spiral staircase, of the kind that there really aren't enough of in London. The Jewel Tower has only two rooms per floor, but they do at least feel proper medieval (with thick Kentish ragstone walls to match, so that's your mobile reception gone). The top floor's all about recounting the tower's history, which means a lot of information panels to read and not too much else. The building was originally the "King's Privy Wardrobe" where King Edward III secured his treasures, constructed in 1365 (or thereabouts) by master mason Henry Yevele. Some of the original elm foundations are on display on a ledge by the window. Eventually all the royal gold moved out to the Tower of London, and the building was used for several centuries as a document archive for the House of Lords. Fortunate, that, what with the big 1834 fire and all. Most recently the Jewel Tower was home to a weights and measures office, and examples of gallon, pint and bushel cups are on show in room number two. It gleams, sort of, but this can't be the treasure tourists expect when they visit.

Down on the first floor is an exhibition entitled Parliament past and present. In this case 'present' means 1997 not 2009, which under current circumstances is probably a good thing. This untimely freeze-frame means that when you see the Speaker's robes in a glass case it's that nice old Bernard Weatherill, not the current discredited incumbent. It also means a big laminated photo of PM Tony Blair at the dispatch box, plus a giant grinning Gordon Brown exemplifying the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. The historical panels are probably of more interest, unless you feel patronised by paying good money to read what is essentially a nicely illustrated pamphlet in 20-or-so bite-sized chunks. Again, foreign tourists probably pass though relatively fast.

Jewel Tower gargoyleAnd finally back to the ground floor shop, because this is the most interesting room in the building. Not the selection of English Heritage goodies at eye level, but instead look up at the 14th century roof. That's the original rib vaulting, complete with decorative bosses and grotesque heads, and a fine example of medieval mastercraftsmen at work. It's not worth three quid just to see this bit, although you might get into the shop for nothing if you claimed you were only here for heritage jams and a teatowel. Whatever, it's wonderful that this small part of the old Palace of Westminster survives. At least something round here has long-term integrity.
by tube: Westminster

J is also for...
» Jewish Museum (closed for major renovation until the Autumn, otherwise I'd definitely have gone there instead)

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