A Day at the Tower of London – England, United Kingdom, Europe

"Good English oak!" bellowed Carl, my Yeoman Warder tour guide,
placing special emphasis on the block of wood on which so many of
England’s doomed traitors, murderers, thieves and criminals met their
fates centuries ago in this place.

Tower of London

Tower of London

Tower Hill is
clearly visible from where we stand on the bridge over the moat at the
entrance to Her Majesty’s imposing fortress: The Tower Of London. I had
always played out my visit to the historic complex in my head. It would be
a cold grey day with a hint of breeze and the threat of rain. The
White Tower would be wreathed in an impenetrable mist, and I would be
one of only a few who would be braving the elements outside this
enormous, cold castle. I would wander through the gates and be enveloped by its history.

I
arrive at Tower Hill Underground Station at 10:00:00 am on the first clear day in September. As I approach the complex, that is almost a
mellenia old, it appears no less majestic, daunting and eerie than it had in my
mind’s eye. As I meet up with my Yeoman Warder tour guide, I am
ushered inside, past clearly labeled landmarks that bring
chills to the spine. The Bloody Tower, Traitor’s Gate, the Cradle
Tower, London Wall and the centre-piece of the impressive complex, the
White Tower where so many kings and queens held court, and so many of
the counties most insolent predators, both guilty and innocent, had
lived out their unhappy last days.

Carl speaks of the past with interest and unbroken knowledge, captivating his audience when he mentions the final walk prisoners made to Tower Hill where they would pay the
executioner to do a good job, turn their collar down and place their
head on the oaken block to await the stroke. Carl led us to Traitor’s Gate on the river-side of the complex
where prisoners were brought in from trial at Westminster. It is
through this gate that one can almost see Ann Boelyn floating through
as she made her journey to her final home and then only 20 years later,
her niece, Princess Elisabeth did the same when she became a prisoner
of the Tower before becoming queen.

From here, Carl’s Tudor story
continues as we approach Tower
Green where Ann Boelyn was handed a privileged execution by sword, and
in the Royal Chapel where Carl ceremoniously pointed out that we were
currently standing on the burial grounds of some 40 unlucky
Londoners while the likes of Lady Jane Grey and other notable figures still rest
under the marked stone pavers near the alter.

Carl then departs for his other
duties, leaving me to my own devices. There is much to discover by
yourself in this enormous fortress. To my left is the Waterloo
Barracks that houses the Crown Jewels, Imperial State Crown and
various other priceless crowns, swords, orbs and sceptres. Directly in
front of the barracks is the imposing White Tower. It  boasts the
royal armoury and a history as the stronghold of the fortress which has
been added to as monarchs came and went in times of war and peace.

As I cast my eyes to the right of the White Tower, there stands the
infamous Bloody Tower where legend has it, Henry VII murdered two young princes to ensure his unchallenged ascension to the throne. In the
foreground lies Tower Green replete with a modern memorial to those who
met their fate on a make-shift scaffolding that stood not three yards
away.

Duty beckoned. My first port of call following the
tour is the moat where an ancient show of strength is about to take
place. As I descend onto the now grassy moat that centuries ago was a
festering swamp, the medieval arms demonstration begins with a
primitive, awkward looking and bulky crossbow, primed and
aimed to fire at a target 50 yards away. The Master at Arms, decked out
in a peasant soldier’s uniform from centuries past explains that this
machine – despite its appearance and obvious handicaps – was used to
take out soldiers in formation, sometimes three at a time. The
demonstrators show us the longbow and the more
primitive slingshot, but the most grim, threatening and merciless of
these ancient machines is kept until last. The wooden catapult stands
plainly on the grassy moat, seven metres tall and around three metres
wide, when the call comes out for four male volunteers. My hand shoots up almost as a reflex. Within minutes I am pulling down
sharply on a rope and firing a make-shift boulder a hundred yards down
the moat. A most impressive distance I am assured by our lacky
demonstrators. With this piece of history under my belt, we venture
back up the stairs towards the arched entrance to the great fortress
again.

As I walk through the grounds and around the sweeping
corners, through the towers, turrets, forts and dungeons and under the
ancient archways over the next few hours, there is a sense of forboding
in every room and under every archway. Chills grip the spine as one
rounds the Cradle Tower or walks under the archway of the Bloody Tower,
and if you know the ghost stories, then you know why this is so. Perhaps it’s
the power of suggestion that brings with it the eerie atmosphere as I
have been assured on countless occasions that the Tower is haunted by
dozens of spirits, some friendly and some more sinister, but none of which traditionally manifest themselves in daylight hours. But even
surrounded by oblivious tourists, it isn’t difficult to find a lonely
corner to come to terms with the significance of all that has happened
within these walls, and understand why these spirits might not be so eager to leave.

I make my way out of the castle walls some 4.5
hours after walking through the gates. I turn and wonder what it would
mean for tourists 1,000 years later. Would they still feel the same
chills, see the same wonders of medieval England, experience the same
eerie moments as I. Would they feel the same chills as they walk
through the archways of the Bloody Tower? Would they take up the
challenges of days past and fire boulders by catapult across the old
moat? Would they still value the history of this place as that which
helped shape modern day London?

As the darkness falls on the
Tower and the ravens gather on the green, I can be certain this is
a fortress built with purpose and skill and history. Within these walls
it was only becoming more important to Londoners and indeed to the fabric
of England as years and centuries pass.

 

Traveler Article


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