Westminster's Jewel Tower is a hidden gem by name and nature. The 14th century tower stands directly opposite the Houses of Parliament, but gets nowhere near the footfall it deserves.
The Jewel Tower is one of the few surviving parts of the ancient Palace of Westminster, much of which has been destroyed in fires. It's a sturdy little thing, made of Kentish ragstone and still surrounded by a medieval moat. This once ran into the Thames, as shown below, and was used as a source of fish.
The tower's remarkable story is told over three floors, accessed by a spiral staircase. The top floor reveals the tower's connections to royalty. It was built as a storehouse for Edward III's treasures — mostly jewels and silver plate — in 1366, and continued as a royal blingery until 1512. Thereafter, it was mainly used for regal bric-a-brac, but nothing too lustrous.
The middle floor reveals how the Jewel Tower was later converted to store the records of the House of Lords (including the execution order of Charles I). The Great Fire of Westminster in 1834 destroyed many of the Palace's records, but the comings-and-goings of the Lords were preserved thanks to their safekeeping in this tower.
In 1869, the tower passed to the Standard Weights and Measures Department. Its thick medieval walls made it ideal for making precise measurements. Displays show some of the standard weights and capacity measurements that were devised in this building.
The ground floor is mostly given over to a cafe and English Heritage gift shop, but be sure to take in the vaulted ceiling and the cabinet of standard volumes.
The Jewel Tower really is a hidden gem, hiding in plain sight from the millions of tourists who pour into Westminster annually. Give it a look-see next time you're in the area.
The Jewel Tower is open every day. See the English Heritage website for times and prices.