I’d only ever read about the Tower of London in books until we happened to walk past it a few weeks ago, changing from the DLR at Tower Gateway to the Tube at Tower Hill. I pictured it being a typical keep, like the one at York or Conisbrough, a single round or square tower, probably on a hill, perhaps a few ruined outbuildings.
Instead, it turns out that it’s massive.
It’s not surprising that something which has been used by royalty and rulers of Britain for almost a thousand years has, well, grown a bit in that time. But I was surprised by how much Victorian brick there seems to be within the walls.
The Tower of London, as you can visit it today, is a large clump of government and former government buildings, some of which are still offices or storehouses – you can visit the Crown Jewels in the one shown below – and others have been turned into museums.
We didn’t see everything the Tower has to offer – there is a lot – but we did have a good visit, and definitely got our money’s worth.
The Crown Jewels
Probably the most famous exhibition at the Tower of London is the Crown Jewels. They are quite impressive – and also, somehow, not. I enjoyed the visit, and am glad we went but honestly, you’ll see just as sparkly (albeit paste) jewellery in films – and you’ll probably get a closer, longer look when the camera zooms in.
The exhibit is permanently popular, so even on a rainy day in April there was a queue to get into the building. Once inside, you queue past various displays describing the history of the jewels and then past various parts of the collection of artefacts which make up the Crown Jewels. The crown Queen Elizabeth II was crowned with at Westminster Abbey almost sixty years ago was the highlight for me, but it turns out that it’s only one of a couple hundred pieces, including gold platters, chalices and spoons, which were used in the ceremony.
The Jewels are guarded by seriously thick metal doors and Beefeaters in their bearskin hats. The doors are a bit creepy – they’re so thick that there’s no way you could get out if you got locked inside in some blockbuster action thriller plot – but the guards aren’t.
They look just like in the pictures illustrating a thousand children’s stories, except that they’re real, live soldiers with real, live, incongruously modern guns.
The White Tower
The main museum part of the Tower of London, the White Tower is the old keep and contains exhibits of armour through the ages as well as information about the history of the Tower itself.
It’s an interesting mishmash of a place, and one to take at your own pace. I found the halls of armour a bit repetitive – although I was curious to see Henry VIII’s armour, and the ‘giant and the dwarf set’, a pair of suits of plate armour, one made for a small child, the other for an adult well over six foot tall but then got bored and moved on to look at the block which Lord Simon Lovat was allegedly beheaded on (he’s mentioned in the Outlander books – I hadn’t realised he was real, so it gave me a bit of a shock) and read about the history of the Tower.
A long history of tourism
It turns out that tourists have been coming to the Tower of London for centuries, which I find fascinating. It’s obviously so much easier and cheaper to travel and see things nowadays that it’s hard to imagine what sort of people would have visited the Tower even a hundred years ago, and what they would have seen when they got there.
One of the early exhibitions was, apparently, the kings of England on their horses. Wooden models were made by sculptors and dressed in more or less (sometimes decidedly less) appropriate clothes and armour. These are still on display in the White Tower and seem to be in the process of being restored.
There are also scattered signs of the menagerie which used to be a popular attraction, before London Zoo opened up, and you can still see the famous ravens which visitors have been feeding for centuries.
Tips for visitors
There’s a lot to see, and it’s a good day out but it is rather expensive. When we went, it was about £20 per adult. Luckily, if you’re coming in by train you can get 2-for-1 tickets to the Tower of London (the site also lists other similar offers around the UK) which makes it rather more affordable.
If you go, I do recommend making a day of it and packing a lunch. The queue for the Crown Jewels is quite long, and continues inside the exhibit – you queue around it, it’s so busy – so that can take an hour or two, depending on crowds. If you want to add in the White Tower, visit the ravens, buy an ice cream, walk the walls, visit the Prisoner’s exhibition, you’ll probably find – as we did – that it’s too much to rush round in an afternoon. All we managed on quite a quiet, wet afternoon was to queue for the Crown Jewels and visit the White Tower. That said, that was enough history for us for one visit.