diamond geezer

 Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Residents of Tower Hamlets can visit the Tower of London for £1.
This saves £32.60.
So I took advantage.

n.b. You don't book in advance online, you just turn up at the ticket desk and ask.
n.b. Originally you used to have to show a library card, but now all you need is proof of address.
n.b. £1 tickets are also available for those on Universal Credit, Pension Credit and other benefits - see website.

20 things to see inside the Tower of London

White Tower

1) The White Tower is the big tall squarish keep, the tower in the middle, the one everybody recognises, the tower the Tower is named after and also the oldest. It was first whitewashed in 1240. The four cupolas were added in 1533 and topped by the four 'Royal Standard' weathervanes in 1669.
2) The White Tower is very much not step free. They warn you on the way in that you'll be negotiating 204 steps. This includes two spiral staircases (although there used to be more - they've recently bypassed one with a modern freestanding stair). All the steps are up except for one long spiral all the way down from the top floor to the basement near the end. If you don't like stairs you're not going to get the most out of your trip to the Tower of London.
3) The majority of the displays in the White Tower are weapon/defence-related and part of the collection of the Royal Armouries. They have two other museums, one in Leeds and one in Portsmouth, both of which are free. The first thing you see on the way in is The Line of Kings, a cavalcade of armour worn by Tudor and Stuart kings. It's presented in chronological order, as it has been since Charles II introduced it as one of London's very first museum exhibits. Henry VIII's codpiece from 1540 has a massive protruberance.
4) The White Tower contains London's oldest fireplace, a Norman innovation. It leads to two holes in the wall (a big improvement on lighting a fire in the middle of the room and letting the smoke escape through holes in the ceiling). The radiators along the outer walkways are a more recent addition.
5) The most surprising thing as you walk round the building is St John's Chapel. It's housed on the third floor in a bulge in the tower's southeast corner. You'll know you've reached it when you see a sign which says 'Please remove your hats'. It's London's oldest Norman church and is mostly surrounded by two storeys of stone arches, so it's a bit like walking into half an amphitheatre. Anyone can attend Holy Communion in the chapel on the first Sunday of the month by turning up at the West Gate in advance of the 9.15am service and speaking to a warder.

Jewel House

6) This is the other big attraction, the building where the Crown Jewels are kept. The crocodile of barriers outside hints at exceptionally long queues at peak times, but if you wander up on a weekday afternoon in November expect to stroll straight in. The jewels are well secured - at one point in the tour you pass through huge thick lockable vault doors.
7) The experience peaks with a travelator ride past the glitziest regalia. Hop on and you get to glide by all the important crowns, coronets, orbs and sceptres, at a speed which permits close scrutiny but also keeps the masses moving. Normally this stuff only comes out for big events like the State Opening of Parliament, but since I was last here a lot of it's performed a central role in the ancient ritual of a Coronation. Charles held that, Camilla wore that, and over there is the gold plate they propped up on the altar. There are two travelators, one on either side of the row of display cases, and to see the crowns' most ostentatious side you should pick the nearest one.
8) Some of the most famous jewels are of dubious moral provenance, a fact hinted at (but not explicitly addressed) in the opening displays. The Cullinan diamond was discovered in South Africa and almost immediately gifted to Edward VII as head of Empire. The Koh-i-Noor passed between multiple dynasties in what are now India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan before the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire surrendered all his interests to the British. As a modern visitor to the Tower you get to travelate past them in their coronal settings, and to watch their facets glint under the spotlights (and if it's quiet go round and travelate past them all over again).
9) Other treasures tucked away in here are that dinky crown Queen Victoria used to wear atop her veil, the Sword of State Penny Mordaunt wielded at the Coronation, the silver dish from which the monarch hands out Maundy money, a gilt Punch Bowl commissioned by George IV which can hold 144 bottles of wine and the spoon which is the sole survivor of Oliver Cromwell's trashing of the medieval Crown Jewels. Photography is not permitted within the vaults, but rest assured over 100 CCTV cameras are watching you.
10) Exit is via the gift shop where can tourists lap up crown-shaped souvenirs and guide books. A separate shop beneath the Martin Tower sells more in the way of actual jewels, but is well-hidden so attracts far fewer punters. The Jewel Kiosk, disappointingly, merely sells drinks and refreshments.

Other Towers

11) The Bloody Tower is at the heart of a morbid royal mystery, the murder of two princes by (or on behalf of) Richard III. It's quite something to enter the site of a wicked act which totally changed the path of English history. Sir Walter Raleigh later lived on the ground floor. Access to the upper chamber is via a ridiculously narrow spiral staircase (only 21 steps, but feels much further). I can confirm that 4G reception is very poor within the tower's stone walls.
12) The only two-way spiral staircase is at the Beauchamp Tower, the one where you go up to see the graffiti carved into the walls by bored prisoners with acres of time on their hands. Most are religious, be they designs or text, some are astonishingly detailed and all are protected behind annotated perspex. In the mini-exhibition downstairs we learn that only 22 prisoners were ever executed inside the Tower, as opposed to outside on Tower Green, including one WW2 spy caught carrying an incriminating lemon.
13) One of the most fun things to do, if you're able, is the Wall Walk. A staircase by Traitor's Gate takes you up top to Edward I's medieval palace, and thence around the inner perimeter via a long undulating chain of steps and towers... St Thomas's, Wakefield, Langthorn, Salt, Broad Arrow, Constable, Martin, Brick, Bowyer... and back down to ground level. Inside one tower you'll learn about the Peasants Revolt (a rare time when the Tower was attacked) and in another all about the Royal Menagerie (polar bears once swam in the Thames, the lions occasionally bit back). Look over the edge of the Wall Walk and you should see the little terraced houses where the warders live, but try not to snoop.
14) In the Lower Wakefield Tower are various items of torture equipment, including a rack (for stretching) and a scavenger's daughter (for compressing). School parties and backpacking eurotourists would be very disappointed if this aspect of the Tower's history wasn't present.
15) There are 21 named towers at the Tower of London, in case that ever comes up in a pub quiz. 13 of these are studded around the inner curtain wall.


16) The other place of worship within the Tower walls is the Church of St Peter ad Vincula. The medieval original sadly burnt down so the current version is only 503 years old. It's the final resting place of many of those executed at the Tower, including Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell and three of our most tragic queens - Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey. During the Civil War the chaplain saved the medieval font by hiding it inside the central tomb, that of of Richard Cholmondley. Sunday worship is also an option here.
17) Although there have been ravens at the Tower for centuries, they only started caging them properly in 1880. The six current birds are looked over by the Ravenmaster, a burly chap (who appeared in yesterday's post beaming between two tourists).
18) Just inside the entrance, before the chained-off behind-the-scenes area, is a small exhibition covering the history of the Royal Mint (which was originally based here). See a 13th century groat, spot the Tudor counterfeit and, because this is a relatively recent innovation, press some buttons. You could easily miss it.
19) The other substantial sub-attraction is the Fusiliers Museum, a series of rooms recounting the history of a regiment which was raised here in 1685. If you like military backstories it may draw you in. I confess I walked round faster than a class of primary school children.
20) As well as the Charles III cypher on the front of the Jewel House, there are also CIIIR monograms inlaid in the floor at either end of the Crown Jewels travelators. As well as the Yeoman Warders having CIIIR sewn on their tunics, other members of staff wear little CIIIR badges on their lapels. The Tower of London is probably the most CIIIR place in London, so I'm delighted it turned out to be the best answer to the quest I set myself yesterday.

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