A London “must see” is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tower of London. This huge site, encompassing 12 acres in Central London on the River Thames, includes the historic castle, palace, and prison all overseen by a witty band of Beefeaters. Now, I’ve been to London many times but have never managed to fit this “must see” site into our typically packed schedule, probably because it is huge and requires many hours to explore properly. Finally in September, I’m super glad that we were able to dedicate a whole day to checking it out.
We’re not huge fans of taking guided tours but we’ll take them occasionally if we feel that we would benefit from a download of background information while taking it all in. So, we booked the opening ceremony Tower of London/Crown Jewels/Tower Bridge tour (details below). Our small group only included 12 people and the guide. Perfect size for us! Meeting the group at 9 am at the designated spot near the Tower of London entrance, we walked right in and were greeted by a friendly female Beefeater (one of only 3 females out of the 32 in this elite group). Yes, I asked her about the Beefeater gender breakdown, which didn’t surprise me given the strict requirements.
Also known as Yeoman Warders, these Beefeaters are the ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London. The Beefeaters are all retired British Armed Forces members who must be former warrant officers with at least 22 years of service and hold the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. It’s a very competitive post to achieve. They all live on the grounds with their families. There were humorous stories galore shared from our Beefeater about her fellow guards and life at the Tower. One guard had teenagers that tried to sneak out of the walled grounds, but it didn’t go well when they tried to get back in after the gates were locked at night. Our Beefeater walked us through the history of the opening ceremony with the guards and the keys and then we got to experience it. If you are going to take a tour of the Tower of London, go early and include the keys ceremony. It is unique and well worth the cost and getting up early to get there.
After the opening ceremony, we went immediately to the Crown Jewel room (no pictures allowed and this time Thom behaved after a stern lecture from our guide that anyone trying to take pictures would be thrown out). Crowns, necklaces, and other jewelry of epic proportions were in secure glass enclosed cases that you walk around and gawk at while lots of guards watch and make sure you don’t touch anything. I’m glad we were able to see the jewels and absorb the history of how they are used for coronations, such as the 12th century golden eagle ampulla that holds oil that pours from it’s beak into the gold anointing spoon for the royal coronation ceremony. Sadly, the Queen passed away while we were still in the UK. We will be watching with great interest as King Charles wears the jewels we saw on our Tower of London tour during his coronation ceremony in Spring 2023. It will be much more interesting knowing the history behind this ritual that doesn’t happen very often. Of course, Prince William hopes it happens again sooner rather than later.
The rest of the Tower of London had LOTS of really old lethal weapons, torture tools and armory, all needed to protect London from various invaders in the past. I liked the dragon sculpture fashioned out of weapons. Very menacing!
Note-this tour is not for the physically challenged. We climbed 17 flights of stairs that day and walked 6+ miles. At the end of the tour, we walked up to the top of the Tower Bridge, which was quite the hike but the great views made it worth it. Almost. Then we walked across the bridge to the other side of the River Thames, bid adieu to our guide and proceeded to Borough Market for a well-deserved lunch break.
TOWER OF LONDON ENTRY DETAILS
We took this tour: VIP Early Access – Opening Ceremony Tower of London & Bridge with Crown Jewels 2022 (viator.com) Be advised there is a lot of walking and stairs in this tour, so it is not for everyone. There are many different types of tours so check them out and see what suits you best before booking. You can also just buy entry tickets and explore on your own: Tower of London official site: Tower of London | Historic Royal Palaces (hrp.org.uk).