It has been called one of the saddest places on earth. Its walls, blocks of time in a long vista of historical associations. But the Tower of London is more than that. It is a vast tangle of human life intertwined with history. It is as much legend as fact, horror story as love story, shrine as relic. But throughout it all it is England – at its best and worst.
Maintaining its delicate position amongst the ever-encroaching modern skyscrapers of twenty-first century London, the Tower overlooks the Thames as it has for almost 1000 years. A fortress built by man and a waterway forged by Nature, but perhaps one of the most successful partnerships in the history of mankind. As one protects the other, they both continue to defy the effects of time by adjusting ever so slightly to accommodate their ever-changing purpose. Only by seeing one through the eyes of the other, can the modern-day visitor begin to glimpse through the windows of time, into worlds long ago lost.
Today’s visitor to the Tower of London will be amazed by the ironies surrounding this once powerful fortress. Residing in the midst of towering skyscrapers with gleaming glass and steel, the Tower’s slightly yellowed stone and rudimentary construction seem miniature in size. Only when you realize the Tower’s place in history as a fearsome fortress is the irony complete.
Proceeding toward the Tower, down a sloping cobbled embankment, you are distracted by the leisurely atmosphere of modern-day shops and tourists. This on the spot where hundreds have lost their lives over time. Tower Hill, the area adjacent to the Tower of London, was once the site of a permanent scaffold where countless souls lost their lives in front of bloodthirsty crowds – quite different from the scene confronting the modern tourist. The last vestiges of a bloody past are now only discernible by a few markers and creative pub names, such as The Hung, Drawn, and Quartered located nearby.
The ironies continue on approach to the Tower itself. Entrance is now granted with a ticket stub instead of a birthright. Funny that in a modern world tickets are sold to the general public to grant admission to a fortress that excelled in keeping foreigners out for centuries. Instead of armed guards and a water-filled moat, today the Tower is protected by friendly Yeoman Warders and metal detectors.
After passing through security, you enter the once mighty fortress via the Middle Tower and cross the now dry moat by way of an extinct drawbridge. Passing over the moat, you can perhaps watch as an archaeological dig commences. Piles of dirt abound as scientists carefully free old foundations from their earthly tombs. Amongst the ruins exposed is the Bulwark Gate, through which prisoners once headed for execution on Tower Hill; and the Lion Tower, formerly the royal menagerie and the beginnings of the modern London Zoo.
As the damp smell of moist earth rises from below, you cannot help but wonder whose hands laid these original foundations? Who walked these ancient walls before they fell into decay or were torn down? Only the patience of science and countless hours of examination could begin to answer these questions. But for the visitor with a good imagination, the chanting of a blood hungry mob on nearby Tower Hill can faintly be heard as the ghost of a long-dead prisoner exits Bulwark Gate on his journey into eternity.
After passing under the ancient archway of the Byward Tower, you enter the confines of the Tower’s innermost yard. Ahead is Water Lane – the Tower of London’s main street. For the visitor with some knowledge of history, the best way to explore is alone, as far away from the large groups of tourists led by Yeoman Warders as possible. Only in this partial silence, can the faint whisperings of history come to life.
By taking the stairs, which ascend from Water Lane immediately after passing through the Byward Tower, the visitor enters a recently restored portion of the fortress – St Thomas’ Tower. Named for St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was slain centuries ago as the result of an offhand comment by Henry II, this is among the older parts of the fortress. Legend has it that this tower repeatedly collapsed after it was built until Henry III renamed it for St Thomas. This ceased the unexplained crumbling of a seemingly sound structure.
…to be continued…
-cover image courtesy of Wikipedia.com