Nassau’s got funky. It’s true. And London is too doggone cold. But it does have amazing service.
‘Let’s meet at the Tower of London,’ Beth said on the way out of Borth. They were going on a whistle stop tour of Paris. Back in London at the end of the week. No persuasion necessary. We joined them on the 0545. Welsh sheep slipped past the train windows at dawn.
On Friday, London Underground’s Lewis helped us get our Oyster cards. We arrived at the Tower first. The lady at the ticket desks gave us a rundown. ‘You may want to pop into the Welcome Centre,’ she said after I explained we were waiting for our friends. ‘It’s a good place to get your bearings.’ We went through its cool glass walls. She was right. It was the perfect place to wait.
When Beth, Robyn and Gwen arrived, we passed through the security check and discovered the vast size of the Tower. The place is a village. Indeed, one hundred and fifty people actually live there.
‘Can you imagine coming out of your door in the morning and being faced with a crowd of people holding cameras?’ Beth said as we strolled along the stone walls.
I considered it. Waking up and stepping outside to work? Not bad.
It turned out Sir Walter Raleigh felt the same way.
We’d received activity packs in the Welcome Centre. You meet the characters of the Tower and match them up with objects. Present your sheet at the shop for a special prize at the end. Special prize we thought? We’re in.
Walter (sorry, Sir Walter!) told us about how he walked these walls during his decades-long spell in the Tower. ‘Anyone here like potatoes?’ he asked as we filled out our sheets. Every one nodded. ‘Tobacco?’ Groaning. For our kids not quite old enough, this import didn’t go down so well. He he.
We found Mrs Cunliffe-Owen next. In a clipped accent, she proudly explained how she’d helped organise a battalion of men over the age of 45 for the first World War. A retrospective ouch. She told us too about the army box; a Christmas gift to every soldier at the front. ‘Go and see it,’ she told us in a voice you could ride a stiff carpet on, ‘it’s in the Fusilier’s museum.’ ‘Ok, we will,’ we promised her. But on the way, we got caught up in a battle.
Frankly the battle was confusing. Red roses, white roses. A guy with a drum. A lady with a really beautiful wooden rake going on about taxes. How the peasants were going to rise up. A guy in chain mail shouting from the Tower wall. The girls loved it. ‘We’re off to join the garrison!’ they called, following the crowd moving towards the steps. We eyed the emptying bench with interest. ‘Ok.’
After they came back, we saw the Crown Jewels. No photos allowed. We can’t tell you about our plan to break in and steal the jewels but it’s good… Muppets eat your hearts out… It was a good time to meet Colonel Blood, the legendary figure who attempted to steal the Crown Jewels in 1671.
‘I’m in disguise,’ he said.
‘How do you think I got in here to steal the Crown Jewels?’
We scratched our heads. ‘Did you come in through the traitor’s gate?’ ‘Were you dressed as a guard?’
Colonel Blood shook his head. ‘You’ll never believe it. I bought a ticket.’
His story is fantastic. Every day he came until he befriended the keeper of the Crown Jewels. Even arranged a family marriage with his ‘nephew’, a.k.a. a member in his crime gang. When the day came, he tied the keeper up, stabbed him; don’t worry, not to death but to keep him silent and picked up the St. Edward’s Crown.
‘What was I supposed to do when I realised the crown wasn’t going to fit in my bag?’
‘Put it on your head?’ ‘Stick it down your trousers?’
Blood shook his head at our suggestions. ‘I used the only thing I had at the time. A hammer.’ We winced as he demonstrated the bashing-up of the precious crown. By now, he didn’t just have the crown in the palm of his hands.
‘Did you get away?’ we demanded.
He smiled ruefully. ‘Almost.’ I was a breath away from the gate. Then a lone soldier tackled me. I escaped but just as I got away, the gate had closed.’
At this moment a raven settled itself close to us. Listening to the tale?
Blood eyed the raven suspiciously. ‘I refused to talk. Only to the King. I wasn’t stupid. I knew this was the only to save myself. And the King loved my adventures, it turned out. Appreciated my nerve.’ Colonel Blood leaned down towards us. Tapped his nose. ‘Or he was in cahoots with me. After all, rumour was that the treasury was almost empty at this point and the King was looking for some spare cash. The Crown Jewels would have given him just that.’
We stood, shocked by the idea. Colonel Blood grabbed onto the bamboo sheath of his sword. ‘Unfortunately the truth is between him and me.’ The raven began to bray. ‘Shut up, you upstaging bird!’
It had been a most marvellous meeting. We checked our watch.. 1515. Only 15 minutes left to find the last character in our activity pack: Anne Boleyn! The most interesting, story of all. We walked around the Tower in quick time, shouting her name. ‘Do you know where we can find her?’ I asked a Yeoman warder. ‘She’s buried in the chapel,’ he said, ‘but I’m afraid you need special permission to see her.’
We stopped. She was? ‘We’re looking for the character that plays Anne Boleyn. The one with her head.’
‘Ohh.’ He pointed down the steps, towards the exit. ‘She usually sits there. She’s about to finish for the day though.’
Right. We set off. Only to be stopped by Sir Walter again. At this point, Beth and I noticed a certain interest in him from our girls. Young. Good-looking. Interesting shoes. Five minutes passed while they swapped stories. Beth and I were busy scanning the steps. ‘Ok, thank you Sir Walter,’ we said, nudging our girls downwards.
Anne Boleyn was gone. I felt myself grow strangely despondent. What time was it? 1525. ‘She should still be here.’ I found the guy in chain mail from the battle. The girls headed towards him like an old friend. They began to poke him and knock on his helmet. ‘Hey!’ he said, ‘what am I, a museum exhibit?’
So Anne Boleyn went home early. We totally get it though. Before you lose your head. ‘Is it time for ice cream?’ Beth asked. Clever teacher. Before we left, we remembered.. the prize! We went into the shop. The shop lady fished out a big bag.. ‘You get a badge of your favourite character.’ It was the closest I’d get to her. ‘Could I have Ann Boleyn?’ I asked.
We surmised during the ice cream. If you got here 2/3 times a year, you’d have English history sussed. Amazing characters, buildings, books as large as washing machines. Death masks of kings. Huge diamonds, Henry VIII’s metal codpiece… All delivered from a motivated and kindly set of people. Fabulous for friends. No classroom necessary.