In my last post, I explained some of the history behind the Tower of London. Obviously, many things look a lot different than they did during the palace and prison and torture days, but there are some things that haven’t changed much.

Outer wall of the Tower

Certain parts of the Tower have been tourist attractions since the 17th century. One of these is the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are kept! I made a beeline for the jewels when I got inside because everyone says that the line gets very long later in the day. I don’t know much about precious gemstones and jewelry, but even I could tell that the stuff they have in the Jewel House is ridiculous. They have the coronation crown which weighs 7 pounds. Imagine having to wear that on your head! There’s also the world’s largest clear-cut diamond. It’s 530 carats which means nothing to me but apparently the average size for an engagement ring diamond is around 1 carat, soooo… it’s 530 times that. The oldest object, the anointing spoon used in coronations, is from the 1300s. Most of the other objects are much newer because the originals were melted down when the monarchy was abolished in the English Civil War (1649).

The Jewel House

My personal favorite object in the Jewel House was a “punch bowl” that was made of solid gold and, according to the sign, could hold 144 bottles of wine. 144 BOTTLES. Now, I know I’m just a commoner who doesn’t know how anything works, but could someone PLEASE explain to me why that’s necessary?? I couldn’t wrap my head around most of the things in the room, to be honest. The gemstones weren’t that impressive because my brain couldn’t comprehend that they weren’t rhinestones, they were real. I thought about how people save up to buy gold jewelry… how many rings and necklaces do you think you could make with a 144-bottles-of-wine-sized punch bowl? Insanity.

When I was finished gaping at the jewels, I went on a Yeoman Warder tour. The Yeoman Warders, popularly called Beefeaters (though the origin of that name is unknown), are the keepers of the Tower, responsible for guarding any prisoners (historically) and watching over the crown jewels. There are 37 of them who live within the Tower walls with their families. To qualify, they must have served in the armed forces for at least 22 years and been awarded a good conduct medal. They give free tours throughout the day, explaining the history of and telling stories about the Tower. The whole thing is a kind of theatrical experience and is very well done.

Tower views

The Tower complex is HUGE. After the Beefeater tour, I checked out the torture devices, walked along the walls, and explored a bunch of different towers before going into the White Tower. Today, it’s filled with exhibitions of armor and weaponry. I can’t say I’m terribly interested in either, but the collection was still impressive which is pretty much the point. Originally, its purpose was to show the monarch’s right to rule and awe visitors.

While I was walking around, I bumped into a big group that was part of an interactive skit. I don’t know how well you can see, but one of the guys in this picture is dressed up as a knight. They explained all of the different groups in history who tried to seize control of the Tower. At the end, they explained that the only group that ever successfully infiltrated the castle was the peasants during the Peasants Revolt. It was a fun way to learn about history! (Definitely geared towards kids, but no matter.)
View from the White Tower looking towards Tower Green

Armor display in the White Tower
This book made me laugh because it’s HUGE. According to the label, it’s 914 pages of inventory, spanning from 1675-1679. Imagine if it was your job to write in this monstrosity.

One of the unsolved mysteries of the Tower of London took place in the White Tower. In 1483, King Edward IV died. His son, Edward V, was next in line for the throne, but he was only 12 years old. Edward V’s uncle was put in charge until he was old enough to rule, and he brought Edward and his 9-year-old brother, Richard, to the Tower of London. After their uncle was crowned king, the boys disappeared and were thought to have been murdered, though their bodies were nowhere to be found. In 1674, during some construction work, the bones of two children were found underneath a staircase in the White Tower. They were assumed to be the bones Edward and Richard and were reburied in Westminster Abbey; however, they haven’t been tested to confirm that assumption. And so, the mystery continues.

The building in the corner is the Queen’s House. It is the home of the Resident Governor of the Tower of London. It was built around 1540 and is architecturally significant because most other buildings in London from this time period burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. This one survived thanks to its location within the Tower’s stone walls.
Interior Tower views

The Traitors’ Gate was the water entrance to the Tower. A lot of the prisoners kept in the Tower throughout history were brought in through the Traitors’ Gate.
As you can see, it was a slightly foggy day… Crazy how the tops of those buildings completely vanish.
Me with the White Tower!

Another former attraction at the Tower was the “Menagerie”, basically a predecessor of modern-day zoos but way less functional. The royalty used to receive exotic animals as gifts from leaders of other nations (actually, fun fact: the Queen STILL receives animals as gifts – what?!?! – but now they’re sent to the London Zoo). The Tower housed this collection starting the early 13th century, including now-extinct Barbary lions, leopards, a polar bear that used to fish for food in the Thames River, monkeys, bears, an African elephant that was fed wine every day in an attempt to keep it warm (!?!? And then it died after four years because obviously that didn’t work), a hyena, wolves, an ostrich that died from eating too many nails thanks to ignorant visitors who thought ostriches ate iron, birds, snakes that were wrapped in blankets and put on a stove to keep them warm, and more. They weren’t terribly well-kept, partly because the people in charge didn’t know much about how to take care of some of them, and would attack each other and sometimes visitors. The Menagerie was opened to the public in the 18th century, and admission was either 3 half-pence (cents) or a dog or cat to feed to the lions. I promise I didn’t make that up. In the 19th century, the animals were moved to Regent’s Park, now the site of the London Zoo where they are properly cared for.

There are animal sculptures around the Tower as a reminder of the good ‘ole Menagerie days.

Spotted! The Tower ravens are allowed to roam freely within the complex, and I stumbled upon one of them during my explorations

There are still some animals on the Tower grounds… ravens. Six ravens are kept due to the superstition that if the ravens depart, the Tower will crumble and the kingdom will follow. No one is completely sure how or why the superstition and tradition came to be, but there’s no turning back now! The Tower ravens are cared for by one of the Beefeaters, the Ravenmaster. One of the signs said that they each eat 170g of raw meat and bird biscuits soaked in blood each day. So that’s gross. And sometimes, for a special treat, they get a sheep’s heart. Double ew.

The ravens’ cages

By the time I left the Tower, it was about to close, along with everything else I was considering seeing. So much for my ambitious plans for the day! I should have known, though, because never in my life have I gone through a museum quickly.

You can see the two layers of walls and the White Tower rising up behind them. Imagine planning to attack the Tower and seeing this view as you approached (plus a moat!)… I don’t think I would have very high hopes for my chances.
Walking across the bridge.

I made one last stop at Tower Bridge, the famous bridge next to the Tower. Even though the two look similar, the bridge was built during Victorian times (late 1800s). It was required to “blend in” with its surroundings and be built in the Gothic style, hence why it stylistically looks much older than it is. Even though it’s not THAT old comparatively, it’s still pretty impressive that they made an operable bridge 120 years ago that worked for 70 years (the hydraulic system was replaced in the 1970s).

Me with Tower Bridge!
Tower Bridge! It’s a little weird to see a bridge built in Gothic style but with steel components. Those absolutely give it away as a modern (relatively) addition.
View of the Tower of London from Tower Bridge. I know, the view is simply breathtaking because it was such a beautiful and clear day.

After that, I went snack shopping (my favorite part of travel days!) and headed back to my hostel to get ready to go to the airport. Next stop: Iceland!

I had to take a picture of this sign because I don’t think I agree with its claim that the Tower Bridge is the most famous bridge in the world. Personally, I would have guessed that the Golden Gate Bridge is more famous, though I’m not sure how you measure fame. What do you think is the world’s most famous bridge?

I had ambitious plans for my last day in London, and of course, they were way too ambitious. I thought I’d spend maybe four hours at the Tower of London and then I could go to either the National Gallery (one of my favorite London museums) or the Tate Britain (Maddy’s favorite museum which I haven’t been to).

From the very beginning, I failed to follow the plan. I wanted to get there at 9:30 because it opens at 10, but I read that they usually let people in a bit early. I had to pack my stuff up before heading out for the day because I was headed to the airport that night, so I didn’t leave even close to on time. I made it to the Tower around 11:30 and surprisingly still managed to beat the crowds. Maybe people were slowed down because of the dreary weather.

I didn’t know much about the Tower before I went, but now my brain is full. My gosh there’s a lot of history in that place. Here’s where I attempt to summarize masses of information and not bore you to tears…

The White Tower, the central structure in the Tower of London complex, was the first structure built in the mid-11th century by William the Conqueror. He believed that he had a rightful claim to the throne of England, and when it was given to another, he and his army successfully invaded from Normandy. He was declared king in 1066. As a show of his power and in an attempt to intimidate the Londoners, he ordered the construction of the 90-foot-tall tower (with 15’ wide walls!!) which would have been, by far, the tallest building they’d ever seen.

The White Tower

During its early years, the Tower was used as a royal residence and prison for wealthy and high-profile people. Many of the kings were afraid of the people, making the idea of living in an easily-defensible castle very appealing. It did a decent job of keeping people out and a much worse job of keeping people in. In fact, the very first prisoner, Bishop Ranulf Flambard, escaped! As the legend goes, he organized a bit of a party for his guards, got them drunk on wine, and snuck out using a rope that was smuggled in at the bottom of the wine container. He wasn’t the last person to escape either… others successfully bribed the guards to help them out!

There aren’t many original furnishings and decorations in the Tower, but in some spaces, historians have tried to recreate what the royal living quarters might have looked like.
Ceiling in one of the towers

The Tower was expanded a few times. An inner ring of walls was constructed and was soon followed up by a second layer of walls, giving it 21 more towers and a moat. Generally, the monarchs who were most concerned with the upkeep of the Tower were the ones who were most disconnected from and fearful of their subjects.

There were multiple times throughout history when people tried to siege the Tower. The only time anyone was successful was during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. They were protesting excessive taxation and managed to make it inside the White Tower. They found the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer in this chapel inside, two of the men leading the government on behalf of 14-year-old King Richard II, dragged them out to Tower Hill, and executed them. There’s speculation that the peasants were let into the Tower by guards who were sympathetic to their cause.
This pathway runs between the inner and outer walls. I’m standing on an inner wall.
Archer defending the Tower!
The outer walls and the area that used to be the moat
The rack

Starting in the 16th century, the Tower was less popular as a residence among the royals, and it transitioned into other roles. Mostly, it became known as a terrifying prison with horrible conditions and widespread torture. In reality, prisoners were still generally of high-status, were imprisoned for only short time periods, and with enough money, could live in comfort. Torture, while rare, did happen. There were less than 50 recorded incidents of torture at the Tower, but the methods were rather brutal. The most well-known method (though not often used) is probably the rack, where a person’s wrists and ankles are fastened and pulled in opposite directions, stretching the body and dislocating the joints. Another less-used contraption compresses the body by pushing down on the back of someone curled up with their shins on the ground. Others were put in shackles, sometimes hanging from the ceiling. One of the most famous people tortured at the Tower was Guy Fawkes who was part of a plot to blow up Parliament on 5 November 1605 (if you’ve seen the movie V for Vendetta, you’re probably familiar with his name).

“Besides the Rack, the principal kind of torture in England is called the ‘Scavenger’s Daughter’. It is the complete opposite of the rack… The prisoner’s body is folded into three with the shins up against the thighs and the thighs against the stomach. The torturer then forces the ends of two iron bows together and locks the prisoner inside, almost crushing his body with a hellish compression. The is an inhuman torture, in every way worse than the rack…”.
There are carvings all over the various rooms of the Tower where people were imprisoned. Some of them were what I expected, little scratchings that are about as profound as “Lara wuz here”, but then there were also impressive works of art like this one.

Many of the prisoners held in the Tower were eventually executed, either by hanging or beheading. The majority were taken to a nearby hill (Tower Hill) where their deaths were public spectacles. A select few were given the honor of being killed inside the Tower walls on Tower Green, including Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. Apparently, out of “kindness”, he hired an expert swordsman for her execution (to me, “kindness” is a strong word in this situation because he still had her killed…), ensuring that she would be successfully beheaded on the first strike. In other cases, it wasn’t uncommon for the executioner to have to take a few swings before hitting accurately enough to kill the person. That. Sounds. HORRIBLE. I read somewhere that executioners didn’t perform enough executions to become truly skilled (I guess that’s a good thing) and were probably a little drunk because how else could you do that job?

More prisoner carvings.
A memorial in remembrance of the people who were killed on Tower Green.
This big, grassy area is Tower Green, where the most important people were executed, away from the eyes of the public.
This church, the Royal Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, is the burial place of some of the most famous people who were executed on Tower Green and Tower Hill.

In the 1800s, the moat was filled in with dirt because the water was gross, and people were getting sick from it. The Tower was used to hold prisoners for the last time during WWI and WWII, and some were executed by firing squad within the Tower walls. The final execution was of a German spy in 1941.

Now, the Tower is mostly used for ceremonial purposes and is a huge tourist attraction. I’ll tell you about my visit in my next post

The day after I visited Cardiff, I had an 8:15AM bus to London. That was the day when I decided I HAD to stop scheduling myself for transportation that left before 10AM because it never goes well. First of all, I always have things left to pack, and no one in a hostel wakes up before like 9AM unless they’re leaving. That means you have to try to be quiet (or I guess you don’t HAVE to, but I’m not an inconsiderate jerk) which really slows down the packing process. Second, you’re supposed to get to the bus station 15 minutes early. Third, I never budget enough time to get to the bus station, though luckily, in Bristol at least, I didn’t have far to go.

I set my alarm for 7AM, shortly concluded that I didn’t leave myself quite enough time, and went into a panic rush as I tried to get everything done quickly. Of course, rushing leads to stupid mistakes, and while I was packing my bag in the hallway (because I have a lot of very noisy plastic vacuum bags that I don’t like to roll up while people are sleeping), I accidentally locked myself out of my room and had to run downstairs to reception to ask for someone to let me back in.

By the time I left the hostel, I had less than 15 minutes until my bus was supposed to leave, the walk there was about 8 minutes, and of course, it was raining. And of course, I wasn’t wearing a rain jacket because that would have required looking out the window to see that it was raining, and I was too busy panic packing. I practically ran to the bus (both because I was late and because of the rain), and thankfully I made it with about 5 minutes to spare. And I was soaked with rain and also sweating because I ran and there were barely any seats left because I was so late and I sat my disheveled-self next to a girl who was sleeping because she couldn’t be appalled by me if she was asleep.

As much as I like to pretend that I’m a robot who doesn’t require any rest and can walk for an eternity and be fine and doesn’t have to play by the same physical rules as the rest of the people in the universe, I’m not. I have limits, and by the time I left Bristol, I was a bit of a wreck. Not only had I spent like 15 hours a day walking around for three days straight, I also spent my nights trying to catch up on my blog and make plans for the following days and wash every article of clothing in my bag (because I was at almost three weeks of wearing/re-wearing my one week’s worth of clothing).

The results of my complete disregard for my health were that I was 1. Getting sick (and had an intense stuffy/runny nose situation), 2. Absolutely exhausted and could barely keep my eyes open, and 3. Having acute big-toe pain that was so bad I could barely even walk. Yes, you read that correctly. My right big toe was KILLING me. I experienced shooting pain every time I took a step, so when I said that I “ran” to the bus that morning, more accurately I speedily hobble/limped there.

I was worried that something was seriously wrong with me, and that was just not acceptable because I don’t have time to get hurt! Since my brother, Mike, is a doctor, I take full advantage of free medical advice from him, especially when I’m abroad and want to avoid paying to visit a doctor if I don’t need to. (Really though, I just do it for the benefit of his education because it’s good for him to practice diagnosing things. I’m such a thoughtful sister.) I messaged him to ask what he thought was wrong with my toe, and his conclusion was that I had overused it and needed to wear more supportive shoes. Wow. That made me feel stupid. An overused big toe? Come on, Lara. Pull it together!

The good news was that I had already been to London, and I hit the sightseeing pretty hard on that trip. Yes, there are always more things to see, but with Iceland coming up the following week, I didn’t want to keep pushing myself and end up totally useless by the time I made it there. I had three days to spend in London, and the only thing I HAD to do before leaving was go to the Tower of London because I didn’t have time during my previous visit. Otherwise, I wanted to take it slow and give my body a chance to recover.

My plans for my first two days: meet up with friends, sleep, and catch up on work. I was meeting Mike in Iceland in three days, and since Mike loves to hike, my toe had to be better by then. I was NOT interested in tromping around the Icelandic wilderness with a bum foot and slowing Mike down more than I already would.

I met up with Maddy for Sunday roast which is a British tradition. The meal consists of a meat (we went with beef), vegetables, potatoes, and Yorkshire pudding (which is not even close to the “pudding” of American English. It’s the thing on the right side of the plate and is hard to describe… it’s kind of bread-like but denser but also airy. Conceptually, it’s maybe equivalent to an American biscuit because you generally put gravy on it.)

I met up with a couple of university friends, Nick and Becca, who are living in London for a year while Becca is in grad school, and a high school friend, Maddy, who I also saw almost a year and a half prior when I visited London after my time in Ghana. It was funny to see all of them because I absolutely did not think that I was going to find myself back in England anytime soon.

Becca told me months ago to let her know if I was ever in town, and I said that it was unlikely because I had already been to London. With Maddy, we laughed the first time about the weirdness of seeing each other in London after so many years apart… and this time, we laughed about the fact that my life has somehow become one where surprise, repeated London trips are a thing. That’s definitely not a reality I ever would have imagined for myself, but how cool, right?!