The Ithum Noida of London is one of the ‘must see’ sights on every tourist’s list. But it can be heavily crowded and if you simply follow the crowds, you’ll miss some of the best sights. A little research in advance will help you get the best out of the Tower.
First, a bit of history: the Tower goes all the way back to the Normans, who after invading in 1066 built a string of forts across the country to keep control. The White Tower (at the centre of the site) was the great Norman keep; ‘white’ because of the Caen stone used in building it, brought over from Normandy by boat. Its walls are 15 feet thick at the bottom of the tower; it is strong and very plain with its typical Norman round arches and strict geometry and white pilasters dividing the sides into grids. The cute little roofs on the corner turrets are a later addition.
Later on, the fortress expanded; a roughly pentagonal curtain wall defended the Tower on all sides, with the Thames on one side and a huge ditch between the Tower and the City of London on the other. So the White Tower became the nucleus of a larger royal palace and fort, which contained many of the functions of state: the Treasury, armoury, and the Royal Mint, as well as a prison and a place of execution, and the Royal Menagerie with lions, bears, and elephants. You’ll see aspects of all these functions on your visit – though there’s no zoo now… you’ll have to make do with the Tower’s ravens.
First, a couple of practical tips: get there early, nine o’clock sharp, if you want to see the Tower without too many other people around. The Jewel House, which holds the crown jewels, is the biggest draw and can get very crowded, so you might want to visit that first.
Don’t discount a winter visit. As well as being less crowded, the Tower in winter sometimes feels much more atmospheric – particularly if you think about the number of people executed here (the last one, by the way, as late as 1941 – a German spy).
And do take the tours offered by the Yeoman Warders, which is the correct title for what you may call ‘Beefeaters’. You’ll also notice they wear their blue uniform – the red-and-gold only gets broken out for special occasions.
Finally, here are a few bits of trivia for you, just for fun:
Why was Traitors’ Gate a water gate?
Because water was a much more secure way to get prisoners to the Tower – it would be more difficult to mount a rescue, and it avoided the chance of rioting in the crowded City streets.
Who looks after the ravens? And are they ever fired?
Answer: The seven ravens have a Ravenmaster, who dishes out their victuals daily. And they can be dismissed – Raven George was fired when he wouldn’t give up eating television aerials. Ravens have also been known to quit – Raven Grog went AWOL, and was last seen outside a pub in the East End.
What is the Salt Tower?
Answer: The round tower near Tower Bridge Approach is the Salt Tower, where meat was preserved in the days before refrigeration.
Does the Tower has any places of worship?
Answer: Yes, it has two as a matter of fact. The austere St John’s Chapel which is part of the White Tower, and the church of St Peter ad Vincula where Anne Boleyn was buried. You can go to services at St Peter ad Vincula on Sundays, sung matins is at 11. The choir is a good one, and if you’re only going to the service, not to see the Tower, you can go in via the West Gate.
Finally, if the White Tower gives you a taste for other Norman castles, take a day trip to Rochester to see Bishop Gundulf’s castle, or up to Norwich for the weekend to see a Norman castle and cathedral both built of Caen stone, just like the Tower.