Friday, 31 October 2014

The Tower of London (part 1)

Wednesday 29 October 2014

We wanted to visit the Tower while the poppies were in their glory in the moat, though there are schools of thought which suggest that a rainy half-term day was not the perfect choice.  But we went, and enjoyed it a great deal.  We shall go back as we did not have time or energy for the Bloody Tower and the White Tower, and it is not possible to see the Chapel Royal before 4.30 unless you are with a guided tour.  This means that there will be more than one post about the Tower.  Linda will tell you about the outside spaces, and the art works which embellish them; and we shall return.

The place was very busy but we were there before 10.00 and, on my instigation, made a dash for the crown jewels first, and so there was almost no queue.  When we emerged, the queues were of Alton Towers/Disneyland proportions, snaking for miles.  The jewels are very well displayed, we thought, with plenty of introductory information, film and photographs of coronations, and swords and maces in display cases to keep the crowds occupied till we got to the room.  Then, a moving pavement takes you gently past the actual crowns, sceptres and orbs.  There is no limit to how often you can go back and slide past them again, so we felt we had had a good look.  Our only quibble was that they talked about the 17th century republicans destroying lots of the jewels (almost everything on display here is from 1661 or later) whereas we thought that Charles I had actually pawned quite a lot to raise money for his armies.  The advantage of having an empire full or territory that produced precious stones was abundantly clear!

Next we made our way to what remains of the medieval Palace, with multi media explanations of Henry III and Edward I who did quite a lot of extension building.  The Historic Royal Palaces have done some set dressing here, of the kind that English Heritage does, so the King's bedchamber was furnished with some rather nice wallpaper and a bedside mat, which we thought enhanced the experience.  The tiny turret chapel has been retiled, and it was great to see how luminous such floors must have looked when they were new.

The throne room, which is in the Wakefield Tower, is a handsome, octagonal room, again modestly furnished (ie there is a throne...) with information about the various Plantagenet kings.

We had originally agreed that we would walk the walls (wall walking being a pastime to which we are both much addicted) when the drizzle stopped;  but in fact the route thorough the medieval palace takes you to a bit of wall-walk, which leads to another tower with interesting things in it, and so on until you have walked all the wall there is.  

So we next came to the Salt Tower, where prisoners were once kept, and where some interesting graffiti have been preserved behind perspex, with explanations.  More wall walk brought us to the Broad Arrow Tower, which was dressed as the Guard Room, with the obligatory metal hats to try on, and instructions about being on duty to preserve the Tower, the King, the Kingdom and, no doubt, civilisation as they knew it then. Sounds of battle followed us along the wall to the Constable Tower, which has a model of the tower as it was, with key areas to defend, and lists of the weapons needed by each grade of soldier.

We felt able to skip the Martin Tower, because it houses a history of English Crowns and pictures of all of that we had, of course, seen earlier in all their sparkle.  

The next tower delayed us for some time, as it contained fascinating information and pictures of the Royal Beasts:  the menagerie which was here between 1210 and 1832, when the creatures were moved to the care of ZSL at London Zoo (a mere 6 years after the zoo had been founded, so they must have been pleased to get a few extra animals)

The public were allowed in to see the animals, and the accounts around the walls indicate a serious shortfall in health and safety monitoring: during the eighteenth century a young girl lost her arm (and subsequently died) because a lion objected to her stroking its paw.  The various monkeys were loose, and damage was frequently done to ladies' hats.  It's hard to imagine how extraordinary these animals must have appeared to a public with no visual media.  It was the Duke of Wellington who insisted that the menagerie should be closed.  He was in any case, hostile to the admission of the public into what was meant to be a fortress.

It is fitting that the next display you come to is about the Iron Duke himself, since he was Constable of the Tower for a long time as well as being Prime Minister and war leader against Napoleon and so on.(Incidentally, next year is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, so expect much commemorating of that!)  The exhibition about Wellington's life  is illustrated with slides of stages in his career, with a particular focus on his time at the Tower.  He began to employ veterans to guard the Tower, ending the tradition of purchase for these rather cushy positions.  He also had the moat drained during the cholera epidemic of 1843, which was far sighted of him, not least because the link with contaminated water had not yet been established by Dr John Snow.

After a few more metres of the wall walk, we came to the exhibition about the Tower in the  First World War.  It was a centre for recruiting and training, and there were some very interesting archive photographs, enhanced by having a modern civilian (or soldier, or Scout, or Nurse), in colour, added to show where the picture was taken. 

The only annoying thing about this very interesting little exhibition was that  the film of the Artists Rifles in training had been recorded with the projector running too fast.  I do wish people would take the trouble to get things right.  Soldiers of the Great War did not jerk about in a slightly risible way.

Also in this room was a film about the making of the ceramic poppies for the moat.  The artist, Paul Cummins, talked about the people who were working on the project and how long it had taken. 

Finally, we made our way across to the scaffold site, where the modern sculpture which marks where people were executed was hidden by tarpaulins as it was undergoing maintenance, and to the Beauchamp Tower.

This is another area where prisoners were kept, especially those who were not of the 'right' branch of Christianity:  quite a difficult balancing act, after all, with monarchs changing the particular fine tuning much as modern governments fiddle with the school curriculum.  On the other hand, in 1570, the Pope excommunicated the Queen of England, a sort of fatwah inciting Catholics to assassinate her, so imprisonment was not unreasonable.  Some of the inmates were incarcerated for so long that they clearly had plenty of time to carve their feelings and family information into the walls.

If the weather had been better, we should have eaten our sandwiches and gone on to look at more;  but the persistent drizzle and chill made that unattractive and all the Tower's indoor eateries were - of course - heaving with half-termers.  So we agreed to come back another time, and left.  

What did we not see?  Well, we chose to avoid the 'Torture in the Tower' bit, with its straggling queue, and shall return, as I said at the top, for two towers and the chapel.

And the poppies?  we thought they were very moving and beautiful, disagreeing with the art critic of the Guardian who said they were prettified and mawkish.

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