The Tower of London

The Tower of London
© 1999 - Jane Leopold Quinn

The sight of the massive gray hulk of the Tower of London was stunning. As she walked out of the Tower Hill tube station, she tried to control her excitement at visiting one of the oldest still-standing buildings in England. Walking through the underground tunnel, she stopped at a souvenir stand to get postcard purchases over with. Twenty cards, 25p apiece, £5 done. Now she could enjoy the rest of the visit completely on her own. She'd yearned for many years for this trip to England, had arranged this tour, and was going to tackle The Tower first. She had no idea the ancient fortress would impact her so strongly and that she would end returning to it on every subsequent trip.

The Tower was built circa 1078 by William the Conqueror and had dominated that area of London ever since. People had walked on those same walkways and touched the same stone walls for over nine hundred years. She picked up her pace—must get into the Tower. Fortunately, she'd pre-purchased her ticket in the tube station, could bypass the long lines, and walk right in but not before her bag was searched with an electronic wand—modern fears encroaching on the ancient stones—a fact of life now.

What was she feeling being surrounded by thick stone walls with huge watch towers? Overwhelmed, tiny, chastened. Prisoners being taken into the Tower, English courtiers, foreign delegations to the monarchs, and maybe even the people most familiar with the Tower—the workmen—all might have had a frisson of fear as they moved past the toothy portcullises, huge gray stone walls, and walked further into the bowels of the fortress. At a whim, the gates could drop, and your life would be immediately altered.

She was too impatient to attach herself to a tour group led by a Yeoman Warder, or Beefeater as they're commonly known. They hold the crowd in thrall with private tidbits about various guests and inmates of the Tower. Facts, figures, and humorous anecdotes fly around the assembled heads. Who can remember it all?

In through another gate under the Bloody Tower, everywhere she turned history enveloped her. The White Tower loomed over the courtyard as well as the surrounding walls. Clean straight lines of the base soared up to curious minaret-like turrets with embellished weather vanes at the tops of the four corners. Up close, the whiteness wasn't as apparent as it had been from a distance. Up close, the exterior was actually a pebbly, warm gray stone with white stone quoining and window surrounds.

Each floor of the White Tower's interior was dark and cavernous. The walls seem to have been stripped bare in order to show the architectural structure. She climbed the interior spiral stairway briskly. The stairs and railings would never pass code in the U.S. Nevertheless, everyone gamely trudged up and down the narrow, steep stone steps. Wading through displays of cannon balls, swords, spikes, maces, and more armor than she could imagine, she was impressed by the amount of material collected in one spot, especially the suits of armor for men, horses, and even an elephant. The pièce de résistance was King Henry VIII's armor, almost as big as his reputation.

Spiraling down was even more treacherous than going up. The railings were thin rope, and the stairs were well-worn smooth. At various corners of the tower were interesting little rooms called garderobes—bathrooms. She hoped the accoutrements were a bit more lavish in the past. One garderobe was totally visible from the Great Hall, and she sincerely hoped hangings or a screen would have been placed in front of the doorway.

Ah, the courtyard again. With her back to the White Tower, a left turn led to the Queen's House, the site of the block, and the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Directly ahead sat the neo-Gothic Waterloo Block housing the Crown Jewels and to the right, the Royal Fusiliers' Museum. The line to view the Crown Jewels was fairly long but seemed to be moving pretty quickly. While waiting, she thought again about the overwhelming bulk surrounding her. How were these structures built without modern machinery and engineering practices? She took for granted the modern way of doing things, but the buildings of the past had used the most up-to-date methods they knew at that time. And the buildings were still up after centuries of use.

The Crown Jewels' Disney-like introduction, with huge multiple screens showing Queen Elizabeth II in full panoply, led onto moving sidewalks. She passed the incredibly glittering Queen Victoria's petite all-diamond crown, the Imperial State Crown, and the ancient St. Edward's Crown used only at coronations. Charles II's Sceptre with the Cross held the Star of Africa, a 530-carat diamond. Her heart in her throat, the grandness of the jewels and gold, as well as their sheer beauty, overwhelmed her yet again. How many times had that word described her today? Too soon, past the vigilant guards, she stepped out into the open air. It wasn't likely she'd ever have to worry about the weight of the heavy crowns on her head or the feel of old gold and cold diamonds in her hands.

Spotting a rare empty bench, she gratefully sat a while to watch the people and give her feet a well-earned rest. The crowd wasn't really very different from a crowd of sightseers anywhere else in the world—people in casual dress, comfortable shoes, children in strollers pushed by tired-looking parents, teenagers more interested in each other than their surroundings.

Okay, enough resting. The day wasn't getting any younger, and there was a lot more to see. As she walked to the western side, she noticed the oldest permanent residents of the Tower. Oblivious to human visitors, black-as-coal ravens are traditionally protected as good luck charms by the Ravenmaster. They're certainly more beautiful and romantic than the ubiquitous pigeons.

Tower Green is divided into two sections, one with the Tudor Queen's House on the south and west sides, the other section includes the infamous block, site of a number of notable beheadings, and the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula on the northern boundary. Certain important prisoners were housed in the Queen's House, one of whom was poor Anne Boleyn. The thought of living a few yards from the site of your own execution had to have been sobering, to say the least. To put herself in Anne's place was too frightening. How do you face your own death especially with the terrifying aspect of the axe or a sword as requested by Anne?

A visit to the Chapel might dispel sad thoughts of Anne Boleyn and the other men and women who died at the command of a particular monarch because of an unfortunate combination of personal and political reasons. The interior of the chapel with its clean, simple interior design was soothing. It was a lovely final resting place for the victims of the axe as well as other ordinary members of this parish church. After another few moments' rest and contemplation of the awesomeness of the human mind which could create an elegant structure like this chapel, as well as cruel forms of execution like the sword or axe, it was time to wander back through the courtyard and gates, back to modern days.

Outside the Tower walls were the souvenir shops, fish and chip stands with their grease and vinegar smells, and the cacophony of all manner of motor vehicles all non-existent inside the walls. The fried fish actually tasted quite fresh and delicious, the chips ordinary, especially when she was used to American fast food French fries. She felt let down now back in the real world. The history, legends, mysteries, and power of the Tower fascinated her. The life of the Tower went on and on. The Tower of London had been in this place since the beginning of the millennium, it would always be here.

She would be back!

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