Visit: 26th October 2013
The Tower of London is one of those places I’ve been to before, but long ago, and I can hardly remember. I doubt that much has changed since I last went here about fifteen years ago, but it might as well have been new to me. I went along with my good friends Vicky and Kim, who until recently I lived with in Bristol. They have moved to London, so I went along to do a bit of sightseeing with them.
The first thing to note about the Tower of London is that it’s pretty steep to get into, at £22 for an adult. The price doesn’t put much of a dent in demand, though, as – like the entirety of London this weekend – it was packed full of people. The Tower was founded by William the Conqueror in 1066, and has borne witness to the history of England ever since. Within St Thomas’s Tower, the first room on the main walking route is what is believed to have been Edward III’s bedchambers, where you can see what is presumably the definition of a king-sized bed. There is a little bit on punishment in the next building (Wakefield Tower), and it included a voting machine to canvas visitors’ views on the purpose of prison in the criminal justice system. As you can see if you squint, a rather illiberal consensus has emerged from among the visitors!
Moving on you can see the spot that is customarily thought to be the one where Henry VI was murdered as he knelt to pray when he was held captive during the Wars of the Roses.
The Martin Tower was an unexpected pleasure – within an unprepossessing corner tower unconnected to the main Crown Jewels building you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a selection of glinting crowns. According to the palace’s website:
…this tower was the scene of Colonel Thomas Blood’s fruitless attempt to steal the Crown Jewels. After the Restoration, the newly made regalia was kept in the Martin Tower (known at the time as the Jewel Tower) in sole custody of the Deputy Keeper of the Jewels, Talbot Edwards.
Blood, disguised as a clergyman, gained Edwards’ trust and on 9 May 1671 convinced the Keeper to show the Crown Jewels to two friends. As soon as the chamber was opened Edwards was attacked and badly injured.
Blood hid the State Crown beneath his cloak; one accomplice slipped the Orb into his breeches, while the other began filing the sceptre in half to make it more portable. When they were disturbed by Edward’s son, the three fled but were soon captured.
After his trial Blood obtained an audience with Charles II and for reasons not fully known, the King pardoned Blood, granted him a pension and promised that his Irish estates, seized at the Restoration, would be restored.
The Crown Jewels themselves demanded a lengthy queue, but the line moved quickly and were soon on a travelator going past crowns belonging to Victoria, George V and the Queen Mother. There were orbs and sceptres, and swords with scabbards that can best be described today as “blingtastic” – swords with names like “The Sword of Justice” and “The Sword of Mercy”.
It is interesting to think that these items that wouldn’t look out of place in a hip-hop video were once venerated in the Georgian and Victorian royal courts as the height of sophistication.
After the jewels, we headed into the White Tower, which is the heart of the fortress and, says UNESCO, a classic example of Norman military architecture. It was in the White Tower that the skeletons of two boys were found, thought to have been those of the two princes and rightful heirs to the throne imprisoned by their uncle, Richard III, when he ruled the country prior to his defeat by Henry VII and the start of 118 years of Tudor rule.
Another interesting aspect of the Tower of London is that it is home to the regimental headquarters of the Royal Fusiliers, an infantry regiment that is active to this day. They have a museum in which you can read about their campaigns through time, as well as a great haul of medals earned by their soldiers and officers over the years. The number of Victoria Crosses there was hugely impressive, and you can read the citations describing the actions of those to whom they were awarded.
That was about all we had the time for in our visit, and I think we covered a good chunk of what was available. There is an exhibit on torture, but it had a long line of ghoulish tourists outside, so we gave that one a miss and went to the local Starbucks instead.
After the Tower, we went across town to somewhere I had not been to before, which is the Victoria & Albert Museum – the V&A. It’s not the kind of place you can fully appreciate in one visit (probably not even in ten), being full of statues from antiquity, Islamic carpetry, 20th Century furniture designs and enormous Raphaels. I was surprised to see in the Chinese section a couple of these armless statuettes:
I immediately recognised these as terracotta concubines from the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi in Xi’an. Similar to the more famous Teracotta Warriors, thousands of these statuettes were buried along with the emperor, as well as all manner of other things that might be of use to him in the afterlife.
After the V&A we went for dinner in Chinatown, which was absolutely heaving. We went to a place I knew from a two years ago called Dumplings Legend. The standard was not what I remembered, and the service was pretty poor, as it often seems to be in London Chinatown. Nevertheless, the ‘hot and spicy’ soup lived up to its billing, and I’m afraid to say I couldn’t handle the power. Needless to say, Vicky and Korean Kim had no problems. Korea seems to produce ironclad tastebuds – I once took V&K to my favourite Indian (Rupsha in Clifton*) and the Vindaloo with added chillis wasn’t enough to make him bat an eyelid!
* No longer trading, unfortunately, as of 2017.