The crypt museum in All Hallows by the Tower

Fight your way through the crowds surrounding the Tower of London and you might just make it through to one of London’s oldest churches.

All Hallows by the Tower seems to be able to trace its foundation back to 675CE, when Erkenwald, the bishop of London, created it as a chapel of the Abbey of Barking, whose abbess was his sister Ethelburga. (This is why the church is sometimes known as ‘All Hallows Barking’.)

It has, as one might imagine, a rich history. Pepys climbed its tower to see the destruction wrought by the Great Fire; the sixth president of the USA, John Quincey Adams, was married here; the church saw the baptism of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. All Hallows is the guild chapel of the international Christian organisation ‘Toc H’, founded by a previous vicar of the church Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton.

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The Opening Ceremony at the Tower of London

You’ve probably heard of the Tower of London’s ‘Ceremony of the Keys’ that takes place just before 10pm every day. This is when the Tower is officially locked up for the night, and the Ceremony has taken place every day since the 1300s (or 1500s – as with so much to do with the Tower, the stories differ). The Chief Yeoman Warder (“Beefeater”) is escorted by four guards from the Tower detachment and locks the outer, Middle and Byward gates.

As this group returns they are challenged by a sentry: “Halt! Who comes there?” he shouts.

“The keys” replies the Chief. “Whose keys?”. “Queen Elizabeth’s keys!” “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s keys and all’s well.”

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An Elizabethan Prisoner’s Graffiti

The Tower of London, famous though it is for prisoners, had no dungeons as such: the incarcerated would be held in rooms in different buildings throughout the Tower’s 12 acres (5 hectares), and one’s treatment depended a great deal on how wealthy or how well-connected one was.

So Hew Draper, a Bristol innkeeper, is unlikely to have had a luxurious time when he was sent to the Tower in March 1560, at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I. The Tower was not a prison for ‘common criminals’, but for those who beliefs, actions or existence were a threat to the state, and so it is with Draper, accused of ‘practising sorcery’. (Draper claimed that although he had been interested in magic, he had destroyed all of his magical books.)

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The Chapel of St John the Evangelist

One of the loveliest and most peaceful spaces in London is literally in the centre of one of the busiest. The Tower of London gets some two million visitors a year, and in high season one can wait several hours to shuffle past the Crown Jewels, and the space in the White Tower around the armour of Henry VIII and Charles I is as jammed as Selfridges on the first day of the sale.

But walk up to the next level of the Tower and you go through an absolute architectural gem – the Chapel of St John the Evangelist – which manages to be utterly tranquil despite the hordes.

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The Ravens of the Tower of London

Just about everyone knows the legend of the Tower of London ravens; that should they leave the fortress then it and, by extension, the entire kingdom, will fall.

It’s meant to be recorded that when the astronomer John Flamsteed (who had set up his telescope in the White Tower) complained to Charles II that the birds were impeding his work and had to go, that the king insisted the ravens stay and that Flamsteed must relocate. This is why the Royal Observatory ended up in Greenwich. (Another version of the story has it that it was Charles himself who wanted the ravens removed and it was Flamsteed who intervened on their behalf.)

Even earlier, the ravens were said to be present at the execution of Anne Boleyn, falling silent on the battlements of the Tower as if knowing the momentousness of a queen’s execution.

The only small problem is – well, all the legends are nonsense, at best late Victorian inventions, at worst cooked up by some imaginative Yeoman Warders some time after WW2.

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Swimming in the Thames

Over on Kickstarter, the Thames Baths Project is within a whisker of getting its first stage of funding together to build a swimming pool on the Thames. The pool would be a floating pontoon on the river and take water from the river, so one could swim in the Thames right in the middle of Central London. This £125,000 round of funding would help the team behind it apply for planning permission and make the case for it to be built (although that case seems self-evident to me).

Back in the 1930s one could actually swim in the river by Tower Bridge as that was the site of the Tower Foreshore, a beach created as a free amenity for the children of the East End. 1500 barge loads of sand were dumped on the north bank between St Katherine’s steps and the Tower with the beach being officially declared open on 23 July 1934. King George V decreed that it was to be used by the children of London, and that they should be given “free access forever”. Continue reading “Swimming in the Thames”

The Tower Hill memorial

Directly across the road by the Tower of London, hard by the tube station is the Tower Hill Memorial to sailors of the merchant navy and fishing fleets who were killed in the two World Wars and who have ‘no grave but the sea’. (See Google maps.)

There are over 35,000 names inscribed in the Memorial’s two sections; just under 12,000 from the First World War and around 24,000 from the Second. Although overall British casualties in WW2 were substantially lower than in the Great War, the losses of the merchant marine show the dependence of Britain on imported goods and materiel during the conflict, as well as the ferocity of the German U-boat and naval assault on British shipping. Both sides knew that Britain could be defeated if starved of food and resources.

Despite its location, the memorial is not visited much by tourists; walk through the metal gates and you will be in a peaceful enclosed space that seems insulated from much of the traffic and city noise. The original memorial, opened in 1928 by Queen Mary, is quite dark and enclosed, taking the form of a vaulted corridor with 12 bronze plaques on which are listed the names of the dead.

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