[This blog post was written in 2011 – I always liked it, so saved it to post today]
Although I have been to London several times, I had yet to see the Tower of London. Not wanting to be the tourist, who consumes culture like fastfood at McDonalds: fast, barely cooked, not satisfying at all, I sought out my own must-see spots in London instead of following the main course. This time however, I decided to do London in true tourist-style.
So I took the tube to Tower Hill and as I walked to the Tower entrance, I got a good view of the entire building…….. why, o why had I not visited sooner? It is a massive and magnificent site to behold, it made my heart beat a little faster with excitement. I took a few minutes to take it all in, whereafter I rushed to the ticketbox. Luckily, I studied the website before I left for London, and had the good sense to buy my tickets online. Instead of standing in line for quite some time, it took me 3 minutes to get in.
After a loud welcome by one of the Yeoman Warders, who was entertaining the crowd with stories of olde, I finally was inside the castle walls. And with me a large horde of men, women and children from all the nations of the world. Now how was I going to experience history with this cacophony all around me? In my mind I found the answer: just pretend it is a medieval city on market day, also overcrowded, loud and unevitable.
The Bloody Tower had the honour of being the starting point of my tour. Although it displays several torture devices, it is not certain the actual torturing took place here. The Tower held it’s share of prisoners, but for ‘questioning’ they were often transported to another, unknown site (the word Guantanamo Bay came to mind….). In this part of the exhibition it is stressed that torture is but a very small part of the Tower’s history. Unfortunately, it is also a topic that lets the imagination run wild and has put it’s mark on the Tower’s reputation.
After viewing some of the smaller towers at the wall walk on the castle walls, with a nice view of the Thames river, I arrived at the White Tower. Being in the middle of the complex, it really stands out. The exhibition ‘Fit for a King’ shows the armour of both kings and their horses. It is displayed smartly, in a timeline of kings, starting with William I the Conqueror. This really adds to the sense that England has a long line of kings and a long, and violent, history. It also immediately shows it weakness: it is a male-centered display, where the illustrious Queens are not mentioned at all. But I must say: it is a most impressive sight, all these harnesses show great craftmanship. It also shows that people indeed are shorter than today, our Conqueror would perhaps not be so impressive a man today. And just for the fun of it I compared the harness of Henry VIII as a young man, and a harness of his in his early fifties. The poor man must at least have doubled in size! The younger Henry VIII might have been an impressive knight, you’d certainly not want the older bull-like Henry VIII as your opponent.
In the afternoon I finally dared to queue for the Crown Jewels, since this was the first time since the line seemed to get smaller instead of growing by the minute. Once inside, you’re being led to some filmed introductions of the Crown Jewels. Mixed with footage of the coronation of Elizabeth II and George VI, together with images of former Kings and Queens, I could not help but almost feel patriottic myself. Here, again, you got the sense of the 1000 year’s span of history of this nation. After waiting for some time, I finally entered the vault. Much to my surprise, one has to step on a runway as one is transported along the Crown Jewels. I assume it has to prevent large crowds gathering at the Jewels, but I had the weird sensation of actually being in some kind of tourist-processing factory. You need to look fast and say your oooh’s and aaaah’s quickly, for the ride takes no more than a minute. Perhaps that is enough, after all, how much splendour can a person endure?
I had hoped to save the best part for last, the Medieval Palace. On the square I was looking around for a large building, since ‘palace’ implies large in my world. It proved to be a series of smaller building near the castle walls. There was not that much to be seen, than the reconstructed bedroom of Edward I. I’m sure it is a true enough reconstruction, colourfull and rich, but somehow it felt fake. In our modern minds the word ‘Medieval’ does not conjure up images of freshly painted and decorated rooms. We’d rather see old and wheatered furniture, moth-eaten fabrics, crumbling walls and charming ruins to give it that authentic feel to it. I felt a bit let down, but nonetheless, I appreciate the effort.
While sitting on a bench enjoying a well deserved mint chocolate cone, I could not help but overhear two boys seated next to me, age around 9, talking about their day at the Tower: ‘There is quite a lot of interesting stuff here’, says one boy. ‘Yeah, but it would have been so much more convincing if they kept stuff old, like it was. It keeps the memories better of how it was, if you know what I mean’, replied the other. ‘I know what you mean, but still, very interesting’, according to the first boy. ‘It was very nice of your Mum to take us’, he added. ‘Yes, she is nice’, the other affirmed. Now this put a genuine smile on my face !! It restored some hope that the next generation has a love for history, and apreciate their parents efforts. A rare encounter indeed.
And perhaps these boys had a point there. One could say that the Tower of London is a polished make-money-on-tourists machine. A splendid picture is presented in small morsels that can be taken in quickly and fits easy in you busy tourist-schedule. It gives you every opportunity to take as many photographs as you can, without actually seeing or understanding what you’re photographing. There are shops, restaurants, ice cone stands, and a tea room who’s employees are constantly busy.
At a certain point I decided to let go of my more cynical view on my visit of the Tower. After all, I am but one of those tourists myself. Whether I consider myself educated or not, I am just one of the 2 million visitors each year. Buildings like this are very
expensive to uphold, and the annual income from tourism contributes to this, so there is a nice symbiosis between tourist and building. I just wonder -perhaps a tiny, tiny bit cynical – who benefits most from this relationship.
For me, the White Tower was the most impressive building of the entire complex. It’s interior and exterior made my day very interesting. It is almost a match for the sensory impressions of being inside this monument of time. It oozes history at every corner, and at times I could really imagine how history could or must have been like. I’m very glad I visited the Tower of London, and I’m sure we will meet again.
Upon leaving I added another new experience to my list: I had a fish ‘n chips. So I could return to my hotel room fully satisfied. My hunger, be it cultural or physical, had been stilled for some time.