Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Towering Achievement

With the exception of three weeks we spent in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Maggie and I lived just a few minutes away from Tower Bridge and the Tower of London in Wapping for the 14 months we lived in London. We walked over Tower Bridge countless times and took more photos of it than I know what to do with. I walked past the Tower of London twice a day when I was taking the tube over to South Kensington, and I often had the boasting thought, "Hey, what a cool commute I have." Yet, somehow, after 13 months neither one of us had been inside the Tower of London nor had we gone up inside Tower Bridge to walk across the upper catwalks.

And we've definitely never tried the lemonade

It's far too easy to put off doing things when you live close to them; I can't tell you how many people live in the San Francisco Bay Area and (sadly) never go to Alcatraz much less make the drive up to Yosemite. Also, we had heard mixed reviews of the Tower: some loved it, some thought it was overrated, and all thought it was too expensive. To make it even less interesting, several people were adamant that the highlight was the crown jewel exhibition. While this may appeal to some, royal regalia doesn't really lift my tunic, so to speak, and the fascination with the English royalty will forever be a mystery to me. Nonetheless, I was still interested in the Tower as an important historic locale, and of course I'd feel like a complete putz if I lived that close and never went in. Finally, during our last week in London, when we were both off of work and Maggie's friend Cabernet was in town visiting, we got around to doing both the Tower Bridge Exhibition and the Tower of London.

Hey, I can see our house from up here

The Tower of London (foreground) from the upper catwalks on Tower Bridge

Looking west along the Thames

The Tower Bridge Exhibition is definitely worth doing for the spectacular views up and down the Thames on a sunny day. In addition to the views, your £6 admission also gets you two short films on the history of the bridge and admission to the "engine room" on the south side of the bridge (not actually the engine room, just a small museum with many parts of the old steam engine). Parts of the engine exhibit were working, and they tried to enhance the experience with lights and sound (you be the judge):

Fortunately there was some fun to be had in the engine room:

I think Maggie lied when she said this was where they hid the fun

These two kids didn't really know what to make of the engine room

I know I'm not the first to make this observation, but the Tower of London looks more like the Castle of London; it's kind of squat and not so tower-like. In fact, the very first day we were in London we walked across Tower Bridge, strolled right by the Tower of London, and I remember saying something like "Hey, check out that cool old castle thing. I wonder what that is." Idiot. I honestly thought Tower Bridge got its name from the towers on the bridge — it never occurred to me that it had something to do with the Tower of London.

Our Yeoman Warder guide, no doubt yelling about something

We wanted the full experience, so we joined one of the tours guided by the famous Yeoman Warders of the Tower. By far the best part of the Yeoman Warder tour is when they start yelling with gruff gleeful voices when they get to a particularly gruesome part of the story. Hooray for gore! Given that the history of the Tower is one long string of gruesomeness, there was quite a bit of Yeoman yelling to enjoy.

From the outside, the Tower looks fairly small, so I was surprised to find quite a bit of open space in the center, and essentially an entire village, pub and all, inside the walls. I always thought the Yeoman Warders went home at night and went out to the pub — well, they actually do, except both home and pub are inside the Tower of London.

One of the more tower-like parts of the Tower of London

I was expecting to be underwhelmed by the crown jewels, but I was in for a bit of a surprise: the crown jewel exhibit was both underwhelming and extraordinarily surreal as an added bonus. Before you even get to the jewels, you have to walk through a series of rooms with videos projected on the walls of various royal ceremonies (e.g., the coronation of Queen Elizabeth) and loud triumphant music playing in the background. This would be fine except you are forced to walk through a switch-backed labyrinth of banisters in an attempt to slow you down as you walk through (because you really don't want to miss the exciting part of the coronation, lemme tell you). Once through the cattle maze you finally get to the jewels, but the really cool ones (the diamonds the size of kiwi fruits, etc.) you only get to glimpse for a moment because you're on a moving walkway. To add insult to injury, as you leave the exhibit where you just saw countless millions of pounds worth of precious stones and metals, they ask you for a donation to support the exhibit. Um, yeah, that's going to happen. There's nothing like charging £16.50 for entrance and showing ostentatious displays of wealth to make people open their pocket books.

Apart from the jewels (which, admittedly, Maggie and Cabernet liked far better than I did), I quite enjoyed the Tower of London and found the history and the long maintained traditions of the Yeoman Warders fascinating. With free admission to the British Museum, the V&A, the Imperial War Museum, the Natural History Museum, and countless other wonders in London, the price of entry to the Tower of London is hard to swallow; still, I find myself wanting to go back and explore the parts I missed, so I don't regret a single pence.


Dan said...

The single best benefit for residents of Tower Hamlet is the cost to enter the Tower of London is a pound.

Andy M. said...

Oh hell, really? I lived in Tower Hamlets and had no idea.