The Royal Observatory, home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian, is located in Greenwich Park at the top of the steep hill overlooking the Queen's House and the National Maritime Museum. In 1675 King Charles II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to build the Royal Observatory on the site of Duke Humphrey's medieval watchtower. It was named Flamsteed House in about 1720, after John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal.
I lived in the East End of London for the first 6 years of my life very close to the Tower of London. When I went to my first school there were some children in my class whose dad’s worked in the Tower as Beefeaters. Which was interesting in itself, but they also were allowed to invite their friends back to the tower for playdates after all the visitors had gone home. So, I got to play around inside the Tower of London, often at night, which was little spooky to say the least – especially as it is famous for its ghosts!
I didn’t visit the Tower again after we moved away from London until I was a teenager living outside of the London as part of a school trip. It had been many, many years since I had last been so I really wanted to go again to see what it was all about and take a walk down memory lane.
The massive White Tower is a typical example of Norman military architecture, whose influence was felt throughout the kingdom. It was built on the Thames by William the Conqueror to protect London and assert his power. The Tower of London – an imposing fortress with many layers of history, which has become one of the symbols of royalty – was built around the White Tower. As well as serving as a fortress the Tower of London has also been home to a wide array of institutions including the Royal Mint, the Royal Armouries and even a zoo.
Arriving at the tube station and walking around the outside of the Tower was a very nostalgic experience for me.
There are few different areas to explore during a visit to the Tower.
Once you reach the path that separates the Tower from the River Thames you get the most amazing view of Tower Bridge.
After passing through the outer wall of the Tower, you find youself in a space between the inner and outer walls. This will probably be full of tourists milling around.
There is a small visitor centre where you can pick up the audio tour equipment. I chose to do this rather than one of the group tours which are led by Beefeaters
As you walk towards the visitor centre you will pass by the infamous Traitor’s Gate, through which people were brought by boat to be imprisoned or executed in the Tower of London.
The White Tower
Inside the walls of the Tower of London, the most iconic of all the buildings is the White Tower.
Visitors today will see an incredible array of armour and weapons as part of the Royal Armoury.
The White Tower showcases the historic and world-class Royal Armouries collections, including the 350-year-old exhibition, Line of Kings, as well as other treasures.
There are many unique and extraordinary arms and and armours on display, including the magnificent royal armours of Henry VIII, Charles I and James II.
On the top floor of the White Tower you will find an original executioner’s block of the 18th century, with an axe that possibly dates back to Tudor times. They were once incorrectly labelled as the implements used to behead Anne Boleyn. However, she was actually executed by sword.
It is now believed that the block and axe were used at the last public beheading on Tower Hill in 1747.
The basement of the White Tower is traditionally thought to be the site of the torture and interrogation of prisoners such as Guy Fawkes and the Jesuit Priest John Gerard.
Also inside the White Tower is a unique Romanesque chapel, the beautiful 11th-century Chapel of St John the Evangelist.
The Medieval Tower
When Henry and Edward expanded the Tower’s defences in the 13th century, they also added a new, luxurious palace. For hundreds of years to come, kings and queens would stay in these rooms.
St. Thomas’s Tower, the Wakefield Tower and the Lanthorn Tower are known collectively as the Medieval Palace.
Today, the towers house recreations of fabulous interiors used by medieval kings and queens during their frequent but short visits to their most important fortress.
Executions at the Tower
Many people associate the Tower of London with beheadings and executions. True, the Tower of London held hundreds of prisoners throughout the centuries.
But, throughout its 1,000 year history, only 22 people were executed inside the Tower of London, and more than half of those occurred during the 20th century.
However, just outside the Tower of London sits Tower Hill, a public space that was the location for over 100 executions. This is where the majority of the Tower of London prisoners would meet their fate.
Although the common assumption is that hundreds of people lost their heads inside the Tower of London, the reality is that executions inside the Tower were reserved only for people of high status and royal blood, or for those whom the king or queen wished to make quiet, quick work of.
Execution inside the Tower was a privilege reserved for those of high rank, or for those who had dangerously strong popular support, to keep them away from the gawping crowds. Ten people were beheaded on Tower Green which stretches to the west of the White Tower.
The most well known among those executed on or near Tower Green were three former queens of England. Two of those queens were wives of Henry VIII.
Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, was in her early 30s and Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, was barely in her 20s. Both were accused of adultery, but neither may have been guilty.
Today, at the very site of these executions on Tower Green you can see a memorial sculpture and quote dedicated to those who were condemned to death by order of the state.
The Crown Jewels are one of the more popular exhibits at the Tower Of London. This world-famous collection of treasures includes more than 100 objects and over 23,000 gemstones.
Getting in to see the Crown Jewels is included in the entry ticket, but the lines to get in can get very long. During my visit, there was a 45-minute wait queue around midday. So, I decided to skip seeing the jewels on this occasion. If you really want to see the Crown Jewels, I’d plan to get there earlier or later in the afternoon!
Walk the battlements
The huge stone battlements forming the Tower’s walls have protected kings and queens since Henry III’s fortifications in the mid-13th century.
Take the Wall Walk, which is one way route with safety signage, a hand sanitiser station and safety markers on the floor to explore the Medieval Palace and the secrets of these huge towers. Along the way, you’ll discover the many different roles the Tower of London has played, from Medieval times right through to the 20th century.
The famous Tower of London ravens
It is said that the kingdom and the Tower of London will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. There are nine ravens at the Tower today.
Charles II is thought to have been the first to insist that the ravens of the Tower be protected after he was warned that the crown and the Tower itself would fall if they left.
The King’s order was given against the wishes of his astronomer, John Flamsteed, who complained the ravens impeded the business of his observatory in the White Tower.
Planning your visit to the Tower of London
The Tower is located within easy walking distance of several train stations including:
- 5 mins from Tower Hill Underground Station
- 10-15 mins from Monument Underground Station
- 10-15 mins from London Bridge Station
- 20 min from Liverpool Street Station
- 25 mins from London Charing Cross Station
You can also travel by river boat. Tower Pier is served by river boats travelling from various piers including Westminster and London Eye and is located next to the Tower entrance.
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20 September to 22 October
23 October to 30 October (Half-term)
Best time to visit London
The best time to visit London is March through May when the temperatures are mild and the city’s parks are green and blooming. However, late spring – along with summer – is also prime tourist season, and hotel and flight prices reflect the surge.
Other places to visit while in London
1. WESTMINSTER ABBEY
Westminster Abbey has been the site of coronation for all British monarchs since 1066 and is home to the ancient Coronation Chair, which is found in St George’s Chapel.
It is also the final resting place of 30 kings and queens with memorials to Edward the Confessor, Richard II, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and more royal tombs found within the abbey.
2. PALACE OF WESTMINSTER
The Palace of Westminster is a Victorian Gothic masterpiece designed by Sir Charles Barry and A.W. Pugin to replace the medieval parliament buildings, which burnt to the ground in 1834. The result of their work is one of the great buildings of the Victorian era and acts as home to the Houses of Parliament
3. MARITIME GREENWICH
The ensemble of buildings at Greenwich, an outlying district of London, and the park in which they are set, symbolize English artistic and scientific endeavour in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Queen’s House (by Inigo Jones) was the first Palladian building in England, while the complex that was until recently the Royal Naval College was designed by Christopher Wren. The park, laid out on the basis of an original design by André Le Nôtre, contains the Old Royal Observatory, the work of Wren and the scientist Robert Hooke.
4. THAMES RIVER
On the banks of the River Thames, London has spread out to become one of the biggest financial, entertainment and trade hubs in the world and in part, this is due to the proximity to this large (and famous) river.
With many of the city’s biggest tourist sites being dotted along its banks, London’s River Thames has a lot of history.
5. LONDON EYE
At 135m, The London Eye is the world’s largest cantilevered observation wheel. It was conceived and designed by Marks Barfield Architects and was launched in 2000.
6. TOWER BRIDGE
An iconic London landmark and one of Britain’s best loved historic sites, Tower Bridge is open to the public 363 days a year. Within the Bridge’s iconic structure and magnificent Victorian Engine rooms, the Tower Bridge Exhibition is the best way of exploring the most famous bridge in the world!