Tower after Hours

Tower of London, without touristsWell. If you make friends with a yeoman warder, then, eventually, you’re going to have drinks with a yeoman warder. It’s bound to happen.

The best place to do that, I guess, is the Tower of London.

After we hooked up with Robin at the Pink Martini concert, he invited us to come down the following Saturday for the Ceremony of the Keys and for drinks at the pub.

His pub is slightly harder to get into than the average pub, as it is fortified with 25 foot stone walls, has about 250 CCTVs, lasers and porticullis and other stabby and pokey things. Oh, and a staff of 34 retired sergeant majors (or higher) living inside, and a regiment or two of British regulars stationed in the Guards’ House.

All that was well and good, because Colin and Ginny and I just wanted a drink and a peek around. We weren’t planning an Ocean’s 11 heist of the crown jewels.

Turned out, it wasn’t just an evening out for a drink at the pub. It was Resident’s Night, a monthly get-together for the “inmates” at the Tower: not prisoners, but the families and friends of the warders, most who live inside.
Enter the Yeoman Warders' Pub
Robin met us at the gate at 18:00 hours sharp, right after they kicked the public out. He gave us a tour of some of the private and off-limits areas, pushing open old doors and gates that looked like they shouldn’t be hanging from their hinges anymore, much less still work. The Tower was not abandoned: kids rode around on their bikes; a couple guys walked their dogs; a young couple strolled by hand-in-hand on their way out for the evening. In the green area, a bride and groom were getting their photos taken, either just come out or getting ready to go into the chapel for their wedding.

No, there were people about, but it was empty of tourists. With Robin, the Tower became, for a short time, a home again, a castle and a fortress.

We opened the bar. Robin’s wife, Heather and his daughter, Marnie, were on the rota that evening to serve—it’s a private bar, unlicensed, so everyone has to take their two-week shift working it. Robin hadn’t lived here for long, and he and his wife have a love for Canada. They’d travelled all over the country, and fell in love with Nova Scotia on their last trip.
Robin keeps the younger residents in line
“I guess that’s why I am always attracting Canadians,” he said. Heather is Scottish, and found the people in Nova Scotia as Scottish as the could be, without being still in the homeland.

Robin took a liking to Ginny as well, whose specialty subject is medieval literature. Yeoman warders have to learn a lot, fast, about not just the history of the Tower, but the history of England. It’s an intense course and Robin finished it early. The youngest of the warders, he’s also one of the most educated, with a master’s, and nearly completing his Ph.D. “Can’t tell you my dissertation topic,” he said the night we met him. “You might nick it.”

It was barbeque night at the Tower. Robin is a confirmed vegetarian, but he still encouraged us to try the mixed grill, and kept our pint glasses full. All around the picnic tables, the kids kicked a soccer ball, jumped on a pogo stick, threw around a rugby ball and chased each other. The sun went down, and the music came up. Robin told us a four-star American general was there tonight and he’d be going with us up to see the Ceremony of the Keys.

The Tower gets locked up, of course, every evening. And as part of that ritual, the guards on duty perform the Ceremony of the Keys, which involves an old story of the last time a guard was allowed to go and secure the Tower alone. Of course, he got beat up, so now Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s keys always have an escort, and, promptly at 10 p.m., a very bad bugler plays a song to herald the closing of the Tower.

Sgt. Barry with Colin and GinnyOnly the Tower guests, and about 50 members of the public are allowed to see the ceremony. It’s free, but you have write away for tickets about two months in advance to get them. One of the yeoman warders, in shorts and a polo shirt, walked us down to the area in front of the raven’s cages. He stood, a little wobbly after a few pints, on a bench, and gave the guests the short history of the ceremony. Then we went out into the courtyard to join the public ticketholders and wait.

The days are still fairly long here, and it wasn’t until we joined the public that I noticed it had gotten fully dark. We walked through the archway and a small group of tourist stood huddled near the traitor’s gate, watching the west entrance. We joined them.

The cobbles were lit by old gas lamps now fitted with electrics. There was little sound, except the slapping of the heels of the guard to our right who stood on duty. Then we heard more footsteps echoing on stones and the jangle of keys. A man in uniform came through the arch, passed by us and walked down to the west entrance, where he was joined by four soldiers. They had a series of paces they performed as the door was shut. Then, together, two armed soldiers, another carrying a lamp, and the guard with keys, marched back toward us. The guard, who had been stomping around to our right came out and stood in front of us. As the four approach, he called for them to “Halt!”

“Who comes there?” for as the yeoman warder told us, you never say “who goes there” since they are obviously coming and not going.

“The Keys!” the guard.

“Whose keys?” he calls back.

“Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth’s Keys!”

And then the guard with the keys and his escort are allowed to pass up into the courtyard, where the bad bugler plays.

It was very atmospheric, except that while the sergeant and his regiment were presenting arms and the bugler was playing, a young Spanish couple was making out like crazy behind us, and their tall friends who were standing in front of me thought it was hilarious and kept poking all their other friends and pointing it out.
Boy meets man with hat
Afterward, we rejoined Robin and Heather and eventually we were joined by Barry and Nick, two of the soldiers who took part in the Ceremony and who were stationed at the Tower. We had a good old time chatting it up with them, though Barry was pretty serious and it took some time (and some pints) to crack his veneer.

One of highlights of the evening, by the way, took place as we were leaving. Robin walked us out to the West Entrance and as we approached the huge wooden door that was, supposedly, secured for the night, we saw that it had a smaller door inside of it that was just hanging open. So much for security, we remarked as we stepped through it. Of course, there was the minor point of the security guard and the huge iron gates outside that we had to be let out of.

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth writes literary non-fiction, haiku, cultural rants, and Demand Poetry in order to forward the cause of beautiful writing. She calls London, Kansas City, and Iowa home. 

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