The longest running show in London, they call it. It's been performed every night (without fail) for the last 700 years. It runs for only six minutes, beginning to end. Tickets are limited, but free. It's The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. And I've finally been along to watch. I think I'm allowed to call myself a proper Londoner now.
There are some fairly strict rules if you want to attend. You have to apply in writing (none of this modern online form-filling stuff). You have to enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope (and that's not a request you hear often these days). You have to give at least two months notice (three in the summer). You have to offer two different choices of date (the rest of November plus Christmas Day are already booked). There's a limit of six tickets per application (unless it's between November and March when you can have fifteen). You have to submit names and personal details of all potential attendees in advance (for the records). And you have to turn up by half past nine in the evening (any later and You Do Not Get In).
I got in. The Beefeater on duty met us at the front gate by the gift shop, gave our tickets a cursory check and ushered us within. There must have been almost 100 of us all told, which is rather more than I was expecting, but keeping numbers high keeps waiting lists down. We gathered on the bridge over the moat in front of the Byward Tower, excitedly, expectantly, awaiting further instructions. Our Yeoman Warder was a cheery soul, apart from his stern list of behavioural demands. Put your cameras away, stick your mobiles on silent, and stay quiet once you're inside. He asked the crowd where they were from (New Jersey, New Zealand, California, South Africa) and I soon realised that I was in a UK minority. It may take serious forward planning (and a couple of International Reply Coupons), but for many tourists the highlight of a trip to London is this late night lock-in at a royal palace.
Onward to Traitor's Gate, past dark forbidding towers, for further historical background and additional details of the night's ceremony. This bloke'll walk up here, they'll walk down there, he'll call out that, they'll play this, and then we'll invite you to leave. It pays to be prepared. And then the two-tier nature of the ceremony became clear. A much smaller group of spectators appeared out of the darkness and lined up (with a better view) on the opposite side of the cobbles. They were dressed in black tie and evening wear, and had clearly spent the earlier part of the evening being expensively entertained somewhere within the Tower's bounds. Some grinned, some tottered, and most looked like they might possibly have had one beer too many. We faced them, they faced us, and we waited.
Six minutes to ten, and the age-old ceremony began. A single Yeoman Warder strode forth, keys jangling, pausing in the gateway to attach himself to an entourage of guardsmen. This larger group then marched off to lock the two wooden gates in the towers we'd all entered through earlier. All of this took place completely out of sight, left to our imaginations, as we stood silently in the late-night gloom. Look at us, we're inside the Tower of London after lock-in, how the hell are we going to get out? And back they trooped, but only so far before the sentry on duty demanded identification.
Sentry: Who comes there? Chief Warder: The keys. Sentry: Whose keys? Chief Warder: Queen Elizabeth's keys. Sentry: Pass Queen Elizabeth's Keys. All's well.
I think our Sentry actually said "Who goes there?", rather than comes, but nobody complained he was off-script. The outcome was the same, as the locking party were duly invited to enter into the heart of the Tower. We followed behind at a safe distance, to watch the final part of the ceremony on the steps in front of the White Tower. There was a lot of stomping up and down at first, then a cheer for Queen Elizabeth and the collective response "Amen!" We weren't perhaps being as quiet as we'd been asked to be, but none of the warders shushed us - they were all too busy taking part. A lone bugler played the Last Post, slightly awkwardly, hitting most of the right notes. And as the clock struck ten they were off, taking the keys away to the Queen's House to be locked up for the night.
I was expecting instant ejection, but instead we were allowed to hang around for a bit and ask questions... even take a few photos now the ceremony was over. I bet they don't allow that in high summer, but perhaps autumnal visits are a little more relaxed. And it turned out the gates to the Tower weren't quite as locked as they seemed. There are smaller exit gates embedded in the two larger sealed gates, so returning to late-night London wasn't too difficult after all. A secret slice of medieval heritage, with performances daily, yet how many Londoners have actually been? Get your stamped addressed envelope ready and you too could witness history.