Sunday, 23 October 2011

Trip to the Tower

Yesterday we had a trip to the Tower of London. This visit had been in the diary for weeks and yesterday finally arrived complete with glorious autumn weather.

In the bad old days prisoners used to arrive at Traitor's Gate by boat so we opted to do the same. We travelled on a Thames Clipper which I always enjoy. This is a fleet of catamarans that plough their way up and down the Thames at regular intervals, usually used by commuters, and they are free of irritating commentary. You simply look out of the window which is what our two young companions were happy to do.

The last time I visited the Tower I was eight years old so really don't remember anything about it. This time I was only too happy to try and take in as much as possible. The Tower is part of the Historic Royal Palaces. These are palaces that the Royal Family don't actually live in any longer.

The Tower is over 1,000 years old. When you enter the site it is like arriving in a small self-contained town. Outside the site modern day London exists with traffic streaming past. Inside the site people clearly live there in apartments with their cars parked outside their front doors. Since it was a nice day someone had their washing out on a washing line. There were signs of pot plants and garden chairs. However on the other side of these apartments is a moat. A moat for heavens sake! (It is drained and grassed over these days.) I found these signs of normal suburban life quite disconcerting.

My limited knowledge of the Tower was all about high status prisoners being tortured before being executed. This did happen but what I didn't know was that the Tower was an important administrative centre where records were kept. It was where coins were minted and weapons were stored. The course of the old Roman wall runs through it.

I could wax lyrical about the crown jewels, the architecture and the grounds. I could laugh about the numbers of historical re-enacters who were milling or marching around wearing authentic costumes but I will desist from all this.

Instead I'll stick to two aspects that I found fascinating. One was the armour that was made to measure for various kings, most notably Henry VIII. By looking at his suits of armour you could get a sense of the man that wore them. You could see just how much weight he put on over the years as his waistline ballooned. There was also a sculpture of his face and he really was an ugly old brute but he was a big and immensely powerful, ugly old brute.

The other thing that surprised me was how many exotic animals used to live in the Tower. They were part of the Royal Menagerie.The only wildlife living there now are ravens. Apparently it was common, centuries ago, for monarchs to compete with each other in the giving of exotic and extravagant gifts. I was astonished that one of our kings had a pet polar bear that was allowed to fish in the Thames. There are beautiful metal statues around the grounds representing the different types of monkeys that were allowed to roam freely. There were lions and a grissly bear called Martin. To my modern-day mind this is quite ridiculous but was quite normal then.

This continued for over 600 years. Eventually the animals were rehoused in the 1820s in the new London Zoo because too many visitors were either being attacked or left for dead by some of these animals. I am very glad on this visit we only gazed at life-size sculptures of exotic animals that included an elephant and maybe a panther or two and not the real thing.

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