Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Tower of London Part 2

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Linda and I returned to the Tower with the intention of visiting the bits we missed last time, especially the Chapel Royal, accessible only with a guided tour.  So we joined the first of the day, led by Yeoman Warder David Coleman.  Sadly he told me not to take notes, saying he did not want me leading my own tours.  I could hardly explain that nothing was further from my mind than making any more visits to the Tower;  and that all I wanted was to share with you people his interesting mixture of history and jokes.  He is one of 37 Yeomen Warders, all of whom have to be ex-Warrant Officers with full military careers behind them.  This has only been true since the 19th century:  before then, as with so much that is royal, places were for people with connections of one sort or another.

The poppies were being dug up as we arrived, the little tents with the volunteers moving gradually along the moat, which will clearly need reseeding.  We were given a brief account of the expansion of the Tower, including the interesting fact that the entry 'Middle Tower' used to be in the middle of the moat, with two separate drawbridges for access.  The huge moat was rather a sewer, but at high tide, sluice gates were open, to flush the stuff into the Thames and out to sea, along with all the rest of London's filth.  This ended, as we learned on our previous visit, when the cholera epidemics persuaded the authorities to have the moat drained.

As we walked along the outer ward, we were harangued (silently) by a hologram in one of the windows; our guide explained the many uses of the buildings since Saxon times: as Prison, Mint, Observatory, Zoo, Royal Residence and Record Office, to name but some.  He pointed out the top apartments of the Beauchamp Tower, which - he said - would  have been used to imprison Adolf Hitler if we had caught him.

We were told of some of the 120 executions which had taken place in the Tower or on Tower Hill just outside:  the last beheading was in 1747, and he did not mention the Second World War spies shot here, about whom we had learned on our previous visit.
We paused at the Traitors' Gate, which may in fact be a mis-interpretation of Traders' Gate, since supplies for the large number of people living in the Tower would be brought by water and unloaded here. Then we went on towards Tower Green, with fine views of the oldest bits of wall remaining as well as Tower Bridge and the Shard.  Mr Coleman tried to persuade us that the spikes at the bottom of the drainage pipes were to deter guards from skulking for a quiet smoke. Hmm....
The ravens were another story:  kept here since Charles II was told that if they left the monarchy would fall, they live about three times as long as ravens in the wild.  We were warned not to try to befriend them, or share sandwiches with them, as their beaks are designed for tearing flesh.

We were told a great deal about the White Tower.  I suppose I had never thought through the fact that its handsome windows could not possibly date from Norman times. Indeed, they were part of a refurb by Christopher Wren at the end of the seventeenth century.

Then it was on to Tower Green itself, with views across to the Constable's residence and the modern sculpture which now marks the place of execution. And so we went into the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula. The Acts of the Apostles (Ch 12) describes how Peter was kept in chains, but rescued by an angel, and the chains (miraculously preserved, obviously) became a key relic. The chapel was rather a disappointment, having been substantially renovated during the second half of Victoria's reign; but the fine organ case is by Grinling Gibbons, and there are a couple of tombs with effigies on them.  No time to linger, however, as the next tour was due too enter.

That was the end of the tour, and so Linda and I went on to enter the White Tower, pausing to wonder at the ornate German cannon on the way round to the steep entry steps.

The Exhibition inside the White Tower is really about the business of being, as the signage says, the oldest visitor attraction in the world.  It has been open to the public for hundreds of years.  The 'Line of Kings' used to show them mounted on horses carved during the reign of James II (1680s) out of oak, and the heads of those old effigies are in a case as well. Apparently the Line of Kings did not aim at authenticity, and armour was allocated to periods quite different from the date of its manufacture.

There is an interesting wall of visitor comments, the earliest of which is 18th century, as well as the now-obligatory invitation to tweet, YouTube or Facebook 2014 reactions. We are not particularly excited by row upon row of breastplates, pikes, halberds etc, though they were displayed to look attractive. There was also a dragon made of armour, documents, gunpowder barrels and so on, to symbolise all the different types of power wielded in the Tower

We very much liked the chapel of St John, a classically Norman looking building, with simple round arches and massive pillars.  Apparently it house the Record Office till 1858.

There were also cases of diplomatic gifts, strangely shaped scimitars and daggers, native American regalia and embroidered armour padding of various kinds. And a case full of bits fished out of the Thames.

The last exhibition space is 'done' by the History Channel, whose logo pops up on every video clip and poster.  Topics here include the role of the Constable (but we had learned more last time along the wall-walk when we came to a tower about the Duke of Wellington's tenure); also the Royal Beasts, which again is better described elsewhere;  the fact that Flamsteed began the Royal Observatory here before moving to the clean air and greater elevation of Greenwich;  the Ordnance Survey, which had its first HQ here in the days when it was part of the Defence of the Realm to have good maps;  and the Mint.

We shared the White Tower with several school parties.  And with them we headed down the four floors of unbroken spiral staircase:  although the exhibition space is on three floors, the stairs take you all the way down to the basement, past some cannon, so that you can, as Banksy says, Exit through the Gift Shop.


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    Rosy Charminar