When Edward III needed somewhere to stash his personal treasure he had a three-storey tower built in the corner of the grounds of the Palace of Westminster. The House of Lords eventually took it over, using the upper rooms to store parchments, journals and Acts of Parliament, and so it was that when the rest of the palace burned to the ground in 1834, the Jewel Tower and its historic contents fortuitously survived. It still stands, tucked back from the roadway between Westminster Abbey and the gazebo lawns of College Green. And thousands of foreign tourists still pay up to pop inside, keen to view an actual genuine English medieval building, but likely departing with a major sense of underwhelm.
The clues are there. The medieval palace moat has been filled in with gravel. The tower's not attached to any other building so can't be huge. Nobody's cleared away the bird droppings round the back path for weeks. The entire downstairs has been taken up with a gift shop and what passes as a cafe, which is a quartet of tiny tables serviced by a small pushbutton drinks dispenser behind the counter. Most tellingly, the Jewel Tower's website declares that the second most exciting thing to see is "The history of Weights and Measures". Best not get your hopes up.
Top floor first, is the ticket seller's recommendation. This requires climbing a stone spiral staircase, which for some visitors will bring a genuine heritage frisson, although the bottom half is actually a 1950s reconstruction. The upper room contains some of the original wooden foundations replaced when the Ministry of Works concreted underneath, and a few cases of chucked-away artefacts excavated from the moat. Perched on the wall are chunks of fine 14th century stonework from Westminster Hall. In the centre of the room is a blocky model of the former palace. An information panel explains that the Crown Jewels were never kept here. The view is not good because the windows are tiny.
Downstairs are the weights and measures they warned you about, including a brass cubic inch, a malfunctioning balance and a box of apothecary's pipettes. Between 1869 and 1938 the tiny Jewel Tower was a nationally important Weights and Measures office, until vibrations from passing traffic started to affect experimental results. Through a Jacobean iron doorway is the turret room where some facsimile Acts of Parliament are displayed, and nothing much else. I observed one German couple tick off the entire first floor in ninety seconds flat, so goodness knows how little time they stayed in the building altogether.
Don't get me wrong, this is a properly historic building with a succession of intriguing uses, and they've done what they can to make it interesting. But of all the places I've been with my English Heritage membership over the last year, it's perhaps the one where I was most pleased to be getting in for free.
And that's an absolute bargain - the equivalent of four years of value from one year of membership.
Just the top three most expensive properties took me over the annual threshold all by themselves, and then I managed to visit another sixteen on top of that. There are some utterly fantastic places in that list too, making my 2018 schedule a properly excellent heritage experience. I've even managed a free visit in 2019, a year and a day after my card was first validated, because it remains usable until the end of the month.
An annual English Heritage membership, if properly curated, is an absolute bargain. So will I be remaining a member this year? Hell no.
Having blitzed English Heritage properties in London and the southeast this year, there are now hardly any left I haven't been to. Some I'd been to before 2018, so didn't do again, and a lot of EH properties are ruins in fields I can visit for free any time. A jaunt to, say, West Yorkshire, Gloucestershire or Devon would allow me to tick off several more, but I'm not planning on going all that way just for that. So I'm ignoring all the plaintive membership renewal emails, sadly, because my one-year splurge was just too good.
But you might want to give annual membership a try, for the historical thrill of it, so long as you plan ahead and use it well. Meanwhile I've signed up for an entirely different scheme which I intend to squeeze all the value out of during 2019, so bring it on.