diamond geezer

 Monday, November 14, 2011

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.


<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>


click to return to the main page


...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream