ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
6) the Tower(¾ mile) [21 photos]
In case it ever needed confirmation, Tower Hamlets gets the first word of its name from the Tower of London. William the Conqueror's defensive fortress was built just outside the walls of the City of London, hence its administration has always been separate. For centuries the immediate area around the fortifications was known as the Liberties of the Tower of London, independently governed, and bolted into Whitechapel District as late as 1889. And it's this which explains why Tower Hamlets pokes its nose to the west of Tower Bridge, including both Tower Hill the Tower itself, and its this ancient boundary I get to follow today. As historic as Tower Hamlets gets. [map]
I left you last at St Katharine Dock, the luxury marina and tourist trap to the east of Tower Bridge, brimming with people who've had their fill of the Tower and are seeking local entertainment. The perimeter path misses the livelier bits, bad news if chain restaurants are your thing, diverting instead down the exit channel to the Thames. Here you'll find a fine modern sundial, 1973-style, consisting of a large stainless steel ring supported by three thick iron cables. More to the taste of the selfie generation is a somewhat twee fountain of a girl with a dolphin, seemingly unsupported in mid-splash, installed on the waterfront in the same year. Perhaps they were meant to divert attention from the monstrosity behind, the Tower Hotel, whose sole architectural saving grace is that guests can't see the hotel from within.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Tower Bridge
Which brings us to Tower Bridge proper, the uber-Gothic river crossing whose unique form makes it one of the capital's most well-known visual icons. Opened around 120 years ago, the central span of this bascule bridge used to lift far more frequently than it does today, hence the walkway positioned 42 metres across the Thames. Pedestrians were directed this way if tall ships were passing through, which meant a lot of steps and dark passages, and in 1910 the upper route closed through fear of crime. Nowadays the main deck shimmers with tourists, photographic devices in hand, while the upper walkway (and its new glass floor) can be accessed on payment of £9. Although the bridge is run and maintained by the City of London Foundation, the northern half is in Tower Hamlets and the southern half in Southwark.
The cobbled walkway between the Tower and the Thames is one of the capital's visitor hotspots where Londoners themselves rarely go. At one end of the cobbles a semi-posh restaurant offers 'traditional' sit-down fish and chips, at the other French pastries have them queuing. Meanwhile the view across the Pool of London is impressive, past helmet-shaped City Hall and onwards upriver, though increasingly filled with modern apartments and offices taking advantage of the World Heritage panorama. Tower Millennium Pier marks the western edge of riverside Tower Hamlets, unbelievably the end of almost eight miles I've been walking along the Thames within this single borough. Here too is the main entrance to the Tower of London, where HRP staff check your bags before allowing you inside to meet the Yeoman Warders.
And at this point, because I can, I'm going to take advantage of Tower Hamlets' biggest perks. Residents of the borough are allowed go into the Tower of London for only one pound, which is brilliant, given that everyone from everywhere else gets to pay £24.50. All you need is an Idea Store card or Leisure Services card, and proof of name and address, and then simply turn up at the ticket kiosks. The lady behind the screen barely blinked when I presented my credentials, but she did attempt to charge me £1.10, including a tiny Gift Aid uplift, but I told here where to stick her extra 10p because, sheesh.
I recommend turning up at the Tower of London when it opens, which most of the week is 9am, because that way you get to see the internal courtyards almost devoid of people. In particular you can get into the Crown Jewels exhibit straight away, and see the sovereign's bling before the queues outside start to get silly. If you ever needed proof that our royal family is seriously loaded, the cases of crowns and ornate giltware will soon ram the point home. Incidentally, my top tip when you reach the twin moving walkways past the shiniest regalia is always to ride the walkway on the right, else you'll miss the Cullinan and Koh-i-Noor diamonds, and that would never do.
The White Tower is a treat for anyone who likes stairs, because there are many, including some proper twisty spiral staircases. It's also amazing to think that this buildingis over 900 years old, and still playing its part in telling the story of the Tower to visitors. The Line of Kings has been a tourist attraction here since the 1600s, essentially a sequence of royal armour on horseback, while the tower's history as a mint and armoury is also thoroughly explored within. Other towers are also available, at least a dozen, including the infamous Bloody Tower (whose stairs are ridiculously narrow), the empty crowns of the Martin and the prisoner-scratched walls of the Beauchamp. And yes, last year's poppies get a reverential look-in via a WW1 display in the Flint Tower, plus there's a child-friendly look at the Tower's days as a menagerie two turrets along.
To walk the walls of the Tower requires locating the right start point, after which you can stroll round peering down into the Yeoman Warders' quarters and out across the City. Alternatively you can follow one of the stocky gentlemen (or ladies) around on a free tour, assuming you don't mind standing at the back of a huge throng. There are ravens of course, but not up close, and costumed actors popping up on schedule to tell their historical stories in context. Another treat is King Edward's medieval palace, on the outer wall above Traitor's Gate, plus the site of the Tudor scaffold on Tower Green, plus tons of different nooks and crannies to explore. I was done by noon, having explored pretty much everywhere, but then I've been before, and a proper tourist would take much longer. Maybe £24.50's a bit steep, but then this is absolutely Heritage Central so what the hell, and for ONE POUND, get in, almost worth all that council tax in itself.
And back outside again to continue my circumnavigation of Tower Hamlets. The borough boundary runs up the far side of the piazza, officially known as Petty Wales, where once a row of householders lived under the jurisdiction of the Liberties of the Tower. The squat cylindrical shaft below the ticket kiosks used to be the entrance to a narrow gauge railway, quickly converted to a public subway, then (once Tower Bridge provided a toll-free alternative) closed and handed over to a water company (it still carries a water main beneath the Thames). Modern tourists ignore it, drawn instead to Starbucks and Wagamama (fractionally in the City) and KFC and Eat (fractionally in Tower Hamlets). Indeed few spots are quite so depressingly foreign-currency-oriented as the souvenir honeytraps and refreshment pits of the Tower Vaults locale.
Across the main road was once Tower Hill, conveniently located outside the fortress walls, where over 100 unfortunate prisoners lost their heads. Now Trinity Square Gardens, it contains two large memorials to those with "no grave but the sea" and a big lawn surrounded by trees. The Tower Hamlets boundary runs round the northern edge, past the front of Trinity House, then takes in the whole of Tower Hill underground station. This opened as recently as 1967, replacing a gloomier portal located just inside the City, and is currently undergoing major external works which require a substantial pedestrian diversion. Expect a new hotel to go up in the gap between the District line and DLR, while the Emperor Trajan looks on (beneath the building site) in front of a chunk of Roman wall.