Oh dear, this post is REALLY late but I do hope that you’ll all forgive me as I’ve been working so hard on my next book that my blogging activities have slipped away somewhat. Well those days are OVER. Those days are DONE. I’m back in the GAME again now and so on. Until the next time I get sucked back into the seventeenth century and can’t quite find my way back again…
I had an absolutely AMAZING May (expect a photo post soon actually as I took some corkers) and one of the highlights was definitely our family trip to the Tower of London, courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces who very kindly sent me a bunch of tickets for the occasion!
Now obviously I’ve been to the Tower many times over the years but it’s been over a decade since I went during the day and had a good poke around. It was a favourite day trip of mine when I was a little girl because my grandfather was in the Scots Guards and used to do guard duty there during the 1950s – so I heard lots of stories about it when I was growing up and used to love taking a look at his usual sentry box whenever I went.
Like lots of children, I was completely OBSESSED from an early age with all those glamorous beheaded Queens and the more gory aspects of British history so a trip to the Tower was always immensely thrilling for me. Happily, my own boys seem to be getting really into history as well (if you could see our house then I suppose you might agree that there is an inevitability to this) and so I thought they might find it equally enthralling as the location for so many tales of iniquity, gruesomeness and woe.
Bristol Temple Meads at disgusting o’ clock in the morning. As it’s usually so busy it’s not often that I really get to appreciate just how beautiful it actually is – like a cathedral of Victorian locomotion or something.
As I absolutely hate crowds, I decided that we should get there for opening time which to everyone else’s disgruntlement meant getting a train from Bristol at about 6am. I’m used to such miseries so couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. I can even put eyeliner on at 3am these days so a bit of grumbling about a 5am start cuts NO mustard with me. Although, to be fair my husband and I had gone to Cardiff to see Nine Inch Nails play the night before (and managed to grab a spot at the front!) and didn’t get home until past midnight so maybe I’m being a TAD harsh here. It turned out to be a good plan though as grumbling aside we were first into the Tower in the morning and had more or less seen everything by the time the serious crowds started to appear by early afternoon.
I was warned beforehand that the most EPIC queue is the one waiting to see the crown jewels (and rightly so!) so basically SPRINTED there as soon as we were in, dragging my family behind me with cheery shouts of ‘COME ON, I WANT TO SEE THE JEWELS, YOU LAZY LOT!’ as they huffed and grumped behind me. It was well worth it though as we had the display pretty much to ourselves – in fact they hadn’t even turned the moving walkway on when we got there so we could walk at a normal pace and stop and really have a good old gawp for as long as we wanted and then go round again and again and again and, well, you get the idea.
We were in there for ages but seriously getting SO close to the crown jewels is a really special experience and one that ought to be savoured for as long as possible. They’re so GLITTERY, you see and some of the stones are impossibly HUGE. They’re also surprisingly beautiful – surprisingly because to my mind, the quality of beauty suggests an element of delicacy and refinement which, let’s face it, the crown jewels are obviously lacking but no, some of the pieces really are gorgeous.
After we’d feasted our eyes on the jewels we popped into the crown jewels shop (the various shops in the Tower are named for and themed around different parts of the complex so there’s a raven shop, a children’s shop, a jewels shop and so on – which may be worth bearing in mind if you’re planning a visit as the shops do not have a uniform stock but tend to have different things so if you’re after something in particular you may have to pop into all of them to find it) for a look at nice jewellery and to buy a book about the crown jewels authored by Anna Keay, which caused no end of amusement to me. Anna Keay? Anna? Keay? Anarchy? Get it? Oh well, maybe it’s just me.
It was on to the various towers after this via a quick detour to the execution memorial by the Queen’s House. I have a feeling that the purported execution site has moved several times over the centuries once people started to forget where it was originally located, but the memorial spot has remained pretty constant, I think as evidenced by the photo of myself aged about six looking mean as hell after punching my cousin and making her cry. This is such a fabulous photograph that OF COURSE I got my own children to replicate it for me thirty four years later! Just look at how the site has changed with its snazzy new memorial and stuff.
There are several towers to explore with the White Tower, of course, being the most iconic. It dominates the site and is reached by a wooden staircase that takes the visitor past the spot where the two sad little skeletons that are allegedly the last remains of Edward V and his brother, Richard were found. There’s even a plaque to commemorate them. Inside the White Tower is an amazing collection of armour and weapons, which isn’t exactly my sort of thing but which was still nonetheless very interesting.
Henry VIII’s armour with its ferociously large codpiece (over compensating much?) is ALWAYS a favourite with small boys – I’ve taken three now to see it and EVERY SINGLE TIME they ask what it’s for. ‘To protect the crown jewels’ my husband interposed quick as a flash this time so there you go. I really love the more delicately wrought and rather beautiful armour worn by Henry, Prince of Wales and his nephew, Charles II as boys. Never really intended to be worn in battle, these are purely decorative pieces of work and really are stunning. You can just imagine them, pleased and proud as punch, marching about and getting their friends to punch them in the chest as hard as they could.
The other towers are equally as fascinating and quite rightly so as they have housed an intriguing mix of prisoners, from the crème de la crème of the court to Nazis to the Krays, over the centuries. In fact, like the cells of the Conciergerie during the Terror, I would say that you were pretty much NOBODY if you hadn’t spent at least one night in the Tower at some point.
I suppose the really amazing thing from the point of view of a modern day visitor is how many of those past prisoners left their mark on their surroundings – from just scraping their initials into a window sill to some really elaborate pieces of work, including an amazingly intricate astrological chart that a fellow Bristolian prisoner accused of sorcery left behind him. Yup, really helping your case there, dude.
Also, as we’re free to leave whenever we like, it’s not really that easy to imagine, especially on sunny days when the Tower is a hub of noise and activity, what it must have been like for people who were imprisoned there for literally years on end like Lady Catherine Grey or the poor Earl of Warwick, who had no idea if or when they’d ever be allowed out. Nights must have stretched on forever too before the advent of electricity so it really must have felt like an eternity of waiting and boredom.
However, there’s enough of the Tower’s dark history on display to keep everyone happy – with a particularly creepy display themed around the disappearance of the princes in the Tower to ‘enjoy’ and another about the infamous Overbury murder trial of 1615. There’s also a display of torture devices to ‘enjoy’, which turned out to be altogether too much for my usually relatively fearless five year old.
My favourite bit though are the beautiful Medieval rooms in the Wakefield Tower, which have been restored to give an idea of how they must have looked in the Tower’s heyday when it was still being used as a royal residence. It definitely intrigues me by the way, that the Conciergerie in Paris was also a royal palace before it gradually evolved into a state prison – a poignant reminder perhaps of the inherent danger of getting too close to the crown?
I wore my new Black Milk ‘Game of Thrones’ dress for the occasion (as come on, what could be MORE suitable, considering the fact that the books are loosely based on the Wars of the Roses amongst other actual historical stuff) so OF COURSE I had to pose next to the amazingly painted Medieval wall.
Of particular poignancy at the Tower is the spot where poor old Henry VI is alleged to have been offed while at prayer in his little chapel. It’s a beautiful spot but sad too. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Henry – if ever anyone was genetically cheated, it was him.
The Tower is amazing though and definitely well worth a visit. We got our tickets for free, obviously, but even my notoriously rather parsimonious husband (well, no, maybe that’s a TAD harsh but he’s not into history or old buildings so doesn’t really GET why anyone would pay to visit them and was particularly taken aback by the price of Tower of London tickets) said that he would happily have paid full price to get in as there was a surprising amount to do and see contained in what appears to be a relatively small space plus it really seemed to him to be a place that people SHOULD see as it has cast such a long shadow over our history. So there.
Anyway, by lunchtime we were completely exhausted and in dire need of sustenance so we said a sad farewell to the Tower and headed off to Spitalfields in search of lunch, finally settling on The Diner, which I had been to once before while drunk and in need of IMMEDIATE HOT DOG ACTION within staggering distance of the Ten Bells across the road. This turned out to be a PERFECT choice as we have a major LOVE of American diner style restaurants and were also in need of some really dirty food to keep us going after such an early start.
I opted for a pistachio shake (oh wow) and all day vegetarian breakfast, which was super nice although I really wish that I’d ordered one of their amazing looking taco salads now! Ah well, NEXT TIME. My husband had coffee and their Diablo burger, which was apparently really excellent. I can’t remember what the children had but I know that they WOLFED it down so that’s good? Anyway, yes, I’d DEFINITELY recommend them if you’re in the vicinity.
After this we headed up to the Museum of London (ooh, they’re finally advertising their upcoming Sherlock Holmes exhibition! Anyone else excited for this?) for a prowl around the various galleries, which always goes down well with the boys as they love it in there. As usual, lots of time was spent in the Roman, plague, Great Fire and war displays because, well, DEATH AND DESTRUCTION. My favourite bits though are the Georgian pleasure gardens (impossible to photograph due to the gloom but it’s lovely) and the Victorian shopping street, complete with pub and lamp post for ladies of the night (and day) to lurk beneath and wonderfully creepy nightmare inducing Victorian paper toys. My absolute favourite thing in the museum though is the beautiful dress that one lucky little girl wore to celebrate the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. I’d wear an adult version in a heartbeat.
We didn’t last long in the museum this time as we were so shattered so wandered back to Spitalfields for dinner at Leon then a quick look at the new street art that has sprung up since my last visit before jumping on a train to Paddington (armed with gorgeous peanut chocolate from Montezuma and some other treats) for our journey home. I’m a bit of a passionate fan of street art (or graffiti if you like) and like nothing more than going for a wander to take photos of really eye catching pieces. As you can imagine, I’m VERY excited about seeing the street art in Berlin when we go there this October so expect a DELUGE of photos on my Instagram account!
The Tower of London is open ALL YEAR ROUND (except for over Christmas and on New Year’s Day) and costs £22 for adults and £11 for children, which may seem steep but is well worth it. Alternatively, membership of the Historic Royal Palaces starts from £46 (£36 if you do a direct debit) and will get you in to the Tower, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House AND Kew Palace for free all year round. Bargain.
Thanks so much (as ever!) to the HRP press team for their immense generosity and sorry it’s taken me so long to write it all up!
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