The nightly Ceremony of the Keys is a great way to see the Tower of London without a horde or tourists--if you don't get locked in!
If you only have time to take your children to one historic spot in London, make it the Tower of London. The Tower offers a virtual smorgasbord of English history and culture within its ancient walls. Take your pick from this partial menu:
The Tower is so popular that it is often overrun with tourists and some of the ancient atmosphere is lost in this crush of humanity. Fortunately, there is a way to get in to the Tower and witness a private ceremony. The Tower allows about 50 people to attend the nightly Ceremony of the Keys--the ancient and now ceremonial locking of the Tower gates.
On the night of the ceremony, advance ticket holders are escorted into the Tower at about 9:20 p.m., long after tourists have left. A Yeoman Warder explains the history of the solemn 700-year-old ceremonial locking of the Tower's gates. After a brief introduction, visitors line up near the Bloody Tower gate to watch the Tower of London's military guard unit escort the lantern-toting Chief Warder as he locks the Tower. In modern times, the Ceremony of the Keys is largely symbolic, but it remains a solemn, precise, and historic event.
Here are a few practical hints for visitors attending the Ceremony of the Keys. If possible, stay in the front of the tour group and stand directly opposite the gate to the Bloody Tower. When signaled by the Yeoman Warder, move quickly through the gate to see the completion of the ceremony in the inner courtyard. The Yeoman Warders take the event seriously and ask that visitors not talk during the ceremony. Silence is more than a mark of respect--half the fun of the ceremony is listening to the sounds: the guards' synchronous footsteps on the cobblestones, the jangling keys, the shouted commands, the bugler's notes.
One other important issue, especially for visitors with children, is that the Tower's rest room facilities are not open before, during or after the Ceremony of the Keys. The following is a true story; the names have been omitted to protect the easily embarrassed.
Hearing the first footfalls of the guards, the father peered down the pathway towards the gate of the Byward Tower. "Dad. Dad!" whispered a small, urgent voice. "I have to go the bathroom." Hoping against the inevitable, the father replied: "Can't you wait, son? The bathrooms are all closed." But alas, as every parent knows, when a child has to go, he has to go, even in the Tower of London. Fortunately, a sympathetic Yeoman Warder earned the father's enduring gratitude. "Bring the little fellow this way," he offered, and led the pair through a gate towards the White Tower. "Let him use the wall, it's seen worse," said the ever-practical Warder. The crisis was resolved, but the father missed the start of the ceremony. We have it on good authority that he and his son returned to the Tower the following year to see the whole Ceremony of the Keys. This time, they planned ahead and used the public rest room just outside the Tower gates before the ceremony.
Restroom emergencies aside, there is one other way you can glimpse more of life in the Tower than the average tourist ever sees. If you are seriously interested, ask a Yeoman Warder about attending Sunday church services in the Tower's Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Remember, this is not a tourist event, it is a real worship service for people who live in the Tower. Go with respect.
The Ceremony of the Keys
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