Day 3: Tower of London

Tower of London entrance

A published guide counselled us to plan on 2–3 hours at the Tower of London.  We spent 5 hours there and could have easily spent more, had only my body not given up under me.

What’s The Tower of London?

I always imagined that the Tower of London was a tower, but in fact it’s a sprawling castle which includes numerous towers, each with its own name. (It would seem that you can’t trust everything that you see in video games. Thank you very much, VTM: Redemption.)

If there is any one tower that represents the Tower of London, however, it would be the White Tower.

The White Tower

The Tower of London started with William the Conquerer’s White Tower, which stands today as the hub of the Tower of London, rising singularly in centre of an expansive courtyard encircled by two concentric curtain walls of stone.

The White Tower, Tower of London

The White Tower (seen from southeast)

What are curtain walls? You might have seen them termed a ‘bailey’. They’re the exterior walls which form the courtyard about the keep. Get an impression of their scale in the picture below.

Between the curtain walls, Tower of London

Between the outer and inner curtain wall

Traitor's Gate & St Thomas' Tower above

As a foreign conqueror, William the Bastard[1] stood in need of substantiating his power in the minds of native subjects, and construction of the White Tower (built 1078–1087) was one measure to that end.  (Recall that the Battle of Hastings (1066), which decided his victory over the English, took place 12 years prior to the start of the construction.)

The White Tower was begun just inside the south-east point of the city wall.  People approaching the town in the latter part of the 11th century were to see the imposing White Tower rising above the city that they might fear their new king.

The outer of the two curtain walls admits boat access to the river through Traitor’s Gate on the south. Traitor’s Gate is so named because prisoners would be brought through it (not the main entrance) prior to their imprisonment or execution.

Traitor's Gate, Tower of London

Traitor's Gate, access to river

White Tower, Tower of London, from south

The White Tower is the oldest of the English (or French, if you will) edifices on the site, but the oldest construction of all is the remains of the Romain wall running along the east side of the White Tower. At the south end of these ruins, you can see the remains of an ancient Roman tower. (For reference, the Roman Age in England spanned AD 40–400.) London was, after all, a Roman establishment, known as ‘Londinium’ in olden times.

As you can see in the photo, the entrance to the tower is some 20 feet above ground level, so the wooden stairs could be burnt in order to render the place nearly impregnable.

Portcullis in inner curtain wall, Tower of London

The Royal Mint

From 1279 to 1809, the Tower of London housed the Royal Mint, of which Sir Isaac Newton held position of warden for the last 28 years of his life. The book Newton and the Counterfeiter details his efforts as Warden to thwart counterfeiting and coin clipping.

The White Tower today

The White Tower is a museum now, stuffed full of ancient armour and arms, placards, coins from the Royal Mint, etc. It will take you at least the better part of an hour to get through, even if a glance is all you afford anything.

The crown jewels

The Waterloo Barracks, on the north side of the courtyard, house the crown jewels. Whether going to a Alexandria Archaeology Museum or the Hard Rock Café, we’re skeptical: are we seeing the real thing or a replica with a placard claiming to be the real thing?[2]  The audio tour addresses the question and asserts that the jewels on display are in fact bona fide. It directs the listener’s attention to the foot-thick steel doors for their corroboration.

Clock on Waterloo Barracks, Tower of London

Clock on Waterloo Barracks

The ‘crown jewels’ exhibit holds a great deal more than those accoutrements associated with coronations; it begins with an exhibit of the evolution of the English coat of arms across the modern dynasties.  Beyond that are jewels, plate, and garments which are truly worth beholding, marvellous works for craftsmanship as well as opulence.

The coronation crowns of several hundred years of monarchs are preserved in a long display case with a moving sidewalk on either side.

Other works in the Tower of London

scale model Tower of London

As you can see in the model, there are many edifices besides those I mentioned.  The map (not shown here) enumerates about 30. I suppose we observed more than half of them, but always had to move along more quickly than one would like, owing to my own inability to spend as long as I pleased going afoot.

Constructions date across the last thousand years and include histories which I enjoyed but haven’t the capacity to relate (get the electronic audio tour).

Audio tour is good

Audio tour = good

A few of the interior buildings and also some repairs on one of the curtain walls (see photo), made use of red bricks, not stone.

My review

The Tower of London was fabulous. I am amazed at how well preserved it is. It felt much like stepping into a story book—even in terms of scale. I scarcely imagined that the castle would be so enormous, much less that the 11th century White Tower could be so large and tall as it was.

Do visit the Tower of London. And if you care to read the placards and listen to the audio tour (or follow a docent about for live tour), then plan on spending much more than 2–3 hours. Bring a water bottle and hope for clear skies.

lion wire sculptures, Tower of London

Wire sculptures of lions

Admission & tickets

Anticipating a crowd, Luther and I arrived a quarter of an hour before the ticket booth opened, and the line for tickets was substantial already.  (Oddly, the entire multitude was queued up at only one of the eight-or-so booths. Luther inquired and learned that all eight booths were to open at the same time, so we took a spot at a booth of our own and completed our purchase before anyone else.)

Even though we were through the ticket booths first, there was already a substantial queue for the entrance to the castle. There’s a separate kiosk for prepaid tickets, and that kiosk was open before the ordinary ticket booths.

My advice: Save money and time by buying tickets online (yes, it’s cheaper; and at almost £20 per adult, we would have saved almost the price of one ticket among the six of us by buying in advance).

More advice: You paid a bundle to get to London and then a bundle to get into the castle. Go ahead and spring for the electronic audio tour. I generally find handheld audio tours worthwhile, and this one was very helpful. (Even with a map, it’s hard to decide where to give one’s attention in such a large castle.


[1] William the Bastard is another sobriquet for the conquerer, for he was of illegitimate birth (not just illegitimiate succession).

[2] I’ve never been to the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, but I have been to the Hard Rock Café in Yokohama, and I remember one of our company, Sienna Wooley, insisting that we ask the manager in Japanese whether the relics we saw were really honmono.

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