The Tower of London is one of my favourite places to visit: it is a perfect day out whether wandering the towers alone or making a family day out of it. The place is so alive with its history, with Beefeaters and Ravens adding to the atmosphere, that it is possible to feel transported back in time. For me, it is at the top of the list of places to see in London.
The Tower's history goes back to the 11th century and William the Conqueror. The White Tower, in the heart of an extensive complex of buildings, was finished by 1100 and must have been an impressive and imposing sight in its day. At the time it was an enormous building, and although modern skyscrapers dwarf it today, it is still possible to imagine how it dominated the landscape. As you climb the wooden staircase on the outside of the building, you pass the spot where, legend has it, the ill-fated Princes in the Tower were finally found. These two young boys, the heir and spare to Edward IV's throne, disappeared from the Tower in 1483. Some 200 years later, two small skeletons where discovered at the foot of a staircase. The prime suspect was Richard III, who is reputedly responsible for several of the unsavoury deaths within the Tower's walls. It must be admitted that much of the Tower's attraction is its macabre and dark history. As you make your way around the site, tales of murder, torture and imprisonment await you.
Although the Tower was a royal palace it was never especially popular as a residence. The medieval towers did house some comfortable chambers, which today have been reconstructed to show how the bedchamber and throne room may have looked, and traditionally monarchs stayed at the Tower before their coronation. But it is much more famous as a prison than a home. Anne Boleyn ended her days within its walls and her daughter Elizabeth I spent some time here during her sister's reign. Catholic priests were confined and tortured here, as were the Gunpowder plotters. More recently, during the Second World War, Rudolf Hess was kept at the Tower, as were the Kray brothers during the 1950s for evading their National Service. Some people were fortunate enough to come out alive, but many others were not. There is plenty of information in the various towers used as prison cells on who was kept where, and there is also some amazing graffiti carved into the walls by successive inmates.
There is a lighter side to the Tower too. The Crown Jewels are a must-see exhibit, housed in an impressive stronghold. The 19th century Waterloo Barracks originally housed soldiers, but have been adapted to contain the jewels, used during the coronation ceremony and other State occasions. There are several ante-rooms leading up to the Crown Jewels themselves, telling the history and use of the various pieces. There is also a short piece of film from the Coronation of Elizabeth II that is well worth watching. A moving walkway, which amused the children I brought with me to no end, keeps the crowds moving past these most precious items. There are so many beautiful and priceless things to gaze upon that it is tempting to tour the Jewel House twice. Go for it, but also look out for the exhibition in St. Martin's Tower, which has more crowns and diamonds in it.
The history of the Royal Menagerie is fascinating too, and there is an interesting exhibition about the many and various animals that once found their home at the Tower. Keep an eye out for animal sculptures dotted around the place: the kids loved spotting them. Eventually, in the 19th century, these animals were moved to Regent's Park, and the London Zoo was born.
There are so many things to see here that it easily makes for a full day out. The White Tower houses armour and more history of the palace; there is a Fusilier's Museum to visit, and the Bloody Tower has, appropriately, an exhibition on torture. If you are able to take a free tour with a Beefeater, you can also get inside the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, which has some very famous people buried underneath its floor. There is a lot of walking to do, and a fair amount of time is spent outside, so be prepared.
There are family trails available to complete with children, but there is plenty for kids to see and do even without them. Many areas have child-friendly information and interactive displays, and always check these for what's on in terms of costumed displays and activities. It is a great place to go, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
The attractions not to miss at the Tower of London:
• The House of gems, where visitors can admire the crown jewels
• Discover the history of royal crowns in Britain, and the importance of sparkling diamonds set in the Tower Martin
• Compare different the statures and styles of Henry VIII and Charles I, through their passion for weapons and armor, as part of the Royal Armoury collection in the White Tower
• You decide: murdered or not? Learn about the history of the two princes in the Bloody Tower, in which Sir Walter Ralegh was also held.
• Prisoners in the Tower. Discover the true stories of prisoners held in the Tower over the centuries, and explore the places where they were actually locked up.
• Traitors' Gate is located under the medieval palace. Find out who borrowed it and why.
Tower of LondonThe Tower of London
London Greater London United Kingdom EC3N 4AB
Tel: 0844 482 777
March - October:
Last admission 30 minutes before closing.
Closed 24-26 December and 1 January.
Royal Armouries © Photo: Richard Lea-Hair / HRP Newsteam
Tower of London State Parade © Photo by Nick Wilkinson/Newsteam
William the Conqueror returns to The Tower of London © Historic Royal Palaces
Medieval Palace © Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk