This fascinating book about the Tower of London offers a personal glimpse of the ancient fortress.
In a very unobtrusive way, Chris West made sure that he was present at every event at the Tower — large and small — during 2014 and 2015. He has captured the thoughts of those who live and work there, from the Yeoman Warders to the Chaplain, to the Constable, to the curators and the families of Tower residents.
Over the years, many histories have been written about the Tower and the great events that have occurred within its walls, but this is a record of life today, proving that the Tower of London is living history and not just a relic of the past. Below we reproduce some abridged extracts from Chris's book.
21 January: Sir Winston Churchill’s Memorial Wreath
This wreath of laurel leaves, surmounted by the iconic ‘V’ for Victory symbol in gold, has been specially designed and made by the Royal Poppy Factory and is to be laid on the water of the River Thames, opposite the Houses of Parliament, to commemorate the culmination of Winston Churchill’s state funeral on 30 January 1965. It is kept close to the altar in St Peter ad Vincula — the Tower's church — until collection on the 30th.
1 February: Saint Peter ad Vincula Morning Service
The congregation was joined by the Royal Military Police Association and the RAF for their annual services. Many other forces associations use St Peter ad Vincula similarly. The form varies — veterans wear their medals and some gather with their families and friends in the chapel, while others parade and march behind their regimental colours across the Broadwalk, processing to the Chapel. Younger relatives or partners may also wear the medals, but on the right breast, instead of the left. These people have a great sense of camaraderie and purpose, a reminder to us of the price people have paid and the need to honour and respect them.
18 March: Game of Thrones
The world premiere of Game of Thrones season five was screened at the Tower, three weeks before it was released in the USA. The red-carpet premiere was organised by Sky Atlantic. The Director of Sky Atlantic in the UK, Zai Bennett, said:
I am delighted we will be hosting the world premiere of this epic show at the Tower of London. I can’t think of a more fitting venue to give what promises to be another unmissable series its big launch.
Considering the way in which the Tower is used for such promotions, I have listened to many different points of view about the best ways to utilise the Tower’s historical moat. Traditionalists argue that it should remain unspoiled, local residents bemoan its ugliness following use by marquees, and others champion the facility for marketing and promoting ‘today’s Tower’. Maybe it’s important to consider the excitement and straightforward joy for those able to visit the moat.
There are other upsides. Events such as this generate much-needed revenue for Historic Royal Palaces. Also, that period of muck and mud, when the marquees are removed, reminds us ‘after the poppies’, of Flanders fields, and of the 888,246 whom we should never forget.
7 April: Arrival of New Probationer Gary Thynne
The latest probationary Yeoman Warder, Gary Thynne, arrived to start his six months’ training, sporting a beard envied by many of his colleagues. Gary, still a young man, has passed through his 22 years’ good conduct and achieved senior rank in the Royal Artillery as Welfare Warrant Officer for two of their regiments.
Though he is no doubt well prepared, now comes a gruelling period of concentrated, focused training as a probationer. For six months he will be immersed in learning ‘the story’. During this time, he must live alone at the Tower, away from his wife. He will be transformed into a polished, entertaining expert specialist performer and speaker about the Tower of London.
21 May: The Ceremony of the Lilies and Roses
This famous annual event is held in the Wakefield Tower and attended by the provosts of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. They pay homage to King Henry VI, who founded both their colleges, by laying their college emblems (lilies and roses respectively) on the spot where the King was allegedly murdered on 21 May 1471. Invitations are limited because of the confined space, so I greatly appreciated my own invitation.
17 July: Harley Davidsons at the Tower
Quietly walking along Tower Wharf, my eyes nearly popped when I saw 50-plus Harley Davidson motorbikes roaring in through the East Gate. I watched, agog, as I could hear them making their way up the hill and onto the Broadwalk. All was well; Yeoman Serjeant Peter McGowran was there and smiling. David Hutchinson belongs to the 1066 (topical) chapter of the ‘Harley Owners Group’, based in Sussex. Moreover, he is brother-in-law to Canon Hall, who had obtained permission for them to visit.
According to David: "On a previous visit, some of us gathered together for a photo around my brother-in- law’s splendid Morgan (known affectionately as Mr Toad). This time, as we drove off, we were stopped from leaving at the gate. Most embarrassing: the volume and vibration of the assembled Harley exhausts had set off an alarm system, so we had to wait until we were given the all-clear. This was our third visit and we are not too sure whether we will be welcomed back!
My guess is that they have been forgiven.
25 August: Ghosts – Well, Why Not?
It was late evening as I passed the Byward Tower, close to the Main Gate, when I realised I had left my notebook behind in the Yeoman Warders’ Bar, at the far end of Water Lane. On returning, yes, I was thinking about the eerie spookiness of the Tower at night. I looked to the right (towards the doctor’s surgery and Old Mint) and there, peering through the window, was an illuminated white, shrouded figure. I hadn’t noticed before, but this gadget is permanently displayed in the window and projects various images. It can be switched on at times to suit, so I assume that someone had spotted an easy victim. OK, guys, it was a great scam and, yes, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Ho ho ho!
Words and photos by Chris West. Chris's book Poppies, Pomp and People: A Year In The Life Of The Tower Of London (from Amazon), or from author's own website, is out now. Follow on Twitter @ayearatthetower, and on Facebook.