Sunday morning, we headed to the Tower of London, one of the most famous sites in all of London. It was here that many were famously imprisoned and then loss their lives. It was first built by William the Conqueror as an actual palace in 1066. Over the next 500 years, more buildings were added on to the structure. It sits right on the banks of the Thames and, today, looks out on Tower Bridge. Although historically used as a prison for treasonous individuals, it is more tourist attraction today, but it also houses and guards the most coveted collection of jewelry around - the Crown Jewels. Sunday was a beautiful fall day - slightly windy, but sunny and in the low 60s - to tour the tower.
We started off our visit by joining in on one of the Yeoman guided tours. These are included with admission and start every half hour from the main entrance. They give a fascinating account of the history of the Tower, some of it's most famous (and infamous) residents, and even share some of the legends that surround the tower. They are definitely worth the hour spent!
To become a Yeoman (also known as a Beefeater) Warder at the tower, each person must have spent a minimum of 22 years in the Royal Army and must have attained the rack of officer as well as hold the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. Basically, you have to be someone pretty BA in the English army to even apply for this job, and even then, there are no more than 40 Yeomen at any one time. Oh, and the other caveat: all Warders and their families must live in the Tower, paying fair market value for their rent, and be inside when the Tower is locked up promptly at 10PM each night (good for knowing where you kids are and what they're doing!). It would definitely be an interesting life - I wonder how many ghosts wander the Tower at night?
And if you're interested, and are planning much further ahead than we did, you can reserve a spot to watch the Ceremony of the Keys, where they lock up the Tower at night. But, you need to be really really early, they are completely booked up until March 2016.
There is also a lot to see inside the Tower. It used to be fashionable to give royalty gifts of exotic animals, and these were housed at the Tower. As late as the 1880's, the menagerie was open to the public to visit and guests were allowed to get much closer to the animals than anyone in a zoo is allowed to today. However, after a series of unfortunate animal attacks that often resulted in death, the menagerie was closed. Over the years, animals ranging from monkeys, lions, tigers, elephants, and even polar bears, called the Tower grounds home. The former caretakers often times had little idea as to how to care for these exotic animals. As such, they often dined on foods common for humans - cakes, bread, perhaps some meat. One bear even died after consuming a large portion of cake on a hot day. Around the grounds are metal sculptures of animals that used to be housed in the menagerie.
Now the only animals that remain are the 7 ravens that are kept. Legend has it that if the 6 ravens that call the Tower home ever leave, the the kingdom and Tower will fall. So 7 (6 + 1 spare) ravens are cared for by the Tower employees.
The central White Tower, the first building built by William the Conqueror and still one of the best preserved Norman fortifications still in existence. It is open to the public to tour.
One may also choose to walk the walls of the Tower. From here, you can get a different view of the entire Tower, get a sneak peak into the lives of the Yeomen's families, and get a great view of the Tower Bridge.
And of course, the highlight of any visit to the Tower is seeing the Crown Jewels. The line may seem long, but don't let it scare you - it moves super fast. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the display, but just google Crown Jewels and you can see examples of some of the amazing jewels. The collection includes more than just jewelry too. They had a giant punch bowl dating from 1830 that is capable of holding over 140 bottles of wine, service sets used for fancy state dinners, orbs, staves, and even robes used in coronation ceremonies, and ornamental swords. Each item has its own, specially designed carrying case for when they are in transport between the collection and the palaces. And of course, there are crowns of all shapes and sizes, too - from the massive solid gold, nearly 5 pound crown of St. Edward, to the small and dainty crown of Queen Victoria that she wore with her widow's veil. I think I could manage to find one that would suit me perfectly!
I probably could have spent all day exploring the Tower, but alas, we had a flight back to German to catch. I find the history fascinating and I love to walk around buildings that are older than my home country (which, really, isn't that hard to do in Europe, but still manages to thrill me every single time). If you're visiting London, I would highly recommend a trip to the Tower. It's even kid friendly!