I take that back, the best time to see the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red was a few weeks ago, before everybody worked out it was brilliant. These ceramic poppies have been here at the Tower of London since the start of August, not initially in such great numbers, although a considerable spectacle all the same. Yet it's only fairly recently that the display in the moat tipped over from centenary artwork to remembrance phenomenon. Maybe the Queen's visit tipped the balance, providing a ripple of publicity that saw visitor numbers snowball. Or maybe it took until a significant proportion of the poppies had been planted to cross some emotional line and make this a proper spectacle.
Whatever, the Tower's been under siege from would-be poppyspotters over the last couple of weeks. Down they've flocked, first flooding the footpath around the perimeter of the moat, then clogging neighbouring roads, then delaying passing buses, then causing chaos at Tower Hill station. TfL have been forced to put up signs encouraging spectators to alight from the tube elsewhere and walk, even as far away as London Bridge, to try and manage crowd control. And still they come. That's not just Londoners, groups are hiring coaches from all across England to come and see the poppies at the Tower, such is the allure of meaningful remembrance. But then when they arrive they find the ring of spectators already several deep, and the surrounding paths partially choked, hence the experience can be somewhat diminished. So go early.
The poppies aren't busy at dawn. There's a reason for that, which is that it's dark. But come shortly afterwards, which at present is just after seven, and you can get the railings almost to yourself. I set my alarm early and stopped by on the way to work, which I realise may be easier for me than for you, and arrived for half past. To be honest, the scene was already busier than I was expecting. About fifty people were milling along the northern edge, more like a hundred as far as the eye could see, and probably several more round the other side. A surprising number had brought proper cameras, with big zoom lenses and everything, as if they'd realised the same temporal truth as me. Come early and you can admire the planted spectacle and not the backs of people's heads.
As a measure of the power of the display a blind lady had turned up, tapping her stick in front of her and holding onto her husband's arm. She won't have seen any of the 888,246 poppies, but at least she was here and experiencing the collective fizz of emotion for herself. The majority of attendees looked like they were on their way to work, probably in the City, plus one or two heading for school. Some had clearly flashed their Freedom Pass, others making a special effort from further away, but all were here to pay their respects. My one regret is not being able to stay fractionally longer to see the sun rise over the horrible hotel to the east, as I'm sure the blood red carpet would have been even more impressive illuminated in the first low rays of sunshine.
By the time I left around quarter to eight the number of attendees had definitely crept up, with choice of viewing position more restricted, and my guess is the entire perimeter would have been claimed well before nine. It's bad news for anyone turning up speculatively mid-afternoon, I suspect, especially those expecting any length of time in prime moat-edge position. And this weekend's going to be totally bonkers, not least with the Lord Mayor's Show just up the road, so expect the temporary crowd control barriers on Tower Hill to be put to good use.
The display closes for good next week, after which all the poppies will be removed, cleaned and distributed for charity, so there is a certain urgency to finding time to visit. Indeed the imminent 11th November deadline has led many politicians and commentators to call for an extension because, they say, it would be unfair to deny the public the opportunity to attend. The Tower however says no, the artwork was always conceived as finite, and they have thousands of volunteers booked to turn up next week and extract the blooms. And I agree - the poppies have already been on display for 2000 hours, and how much more time did you need? You should have come earlier, Or just come early. You have a handful of early mornings left.