Tower of London. Sightseeing Tour of London.
Exit Tower Hill Underground Station, pausing to look left at the sundry buildings that collectively make up the Tower of London.
Founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and added to by successive monarchs, the site has been a royal palace, but is best known as a place of imprisonment and execution. The names of those who have been incarcerated behind its grim, grey walls reads like a who’s who of English history. It was here ‘in a dreary room whose thick stone walls, shut out the hum of life and made a stillness which the records left by former prisoners with those silent witnesses seemed to deepen and intensify…’ that Lord George Gordon languished in Barnaby Rudge. And, in David Copperfield (1849–50), whilst managing Clara Peggotty’s affairs, David varied ‘the legal character of these proceedings by going to see… the Tower of London’.
On the evening of 30th October, 1841, calamity almost overtook the ancient fortress when the Bowyer Tower caught fire. The castle’s nine hand-operated fire engines were quickly brought into action, but proved useless since there was only sufficient water to feed one of them. As the flames began to spread, crowds gathered on Tower Hill to watch the conflagration. Anxious to avoid loss of life, Major Elrington, the officer in charge, sent for the assistance of the London Fire Engine Establishment, and gave orders that no one was to be admitted to the Tower. But, as Punch scathingly reported: ‘… military rule knows no exceptions, the orders given were executed to the letter by preventing the ingress of the firemen… leaving the fire to devour at its leisure the enormous meal that fate had prepared for it.’ When the fire fighters were finally admitted they could do little but aim their hoses on those buildings that had not yet caught fire, leaving the rest to be consumed by the flames. The spectators on Tower Hill watched with a horrified fascination. According to one witness, ‘It was a majestic sight, and many around us observed, “I shall not forget this fire even on my death-bed”.’ The appearance of today’s Tower of London as a complex of medieval buildings is largely the result of the restoration that followed this disaster.
Turn immediately left into Trinity Square and keep going ahead, passing Trinity House on your right. Immediately after No 10, go right into Muscovy Street, right again into Seething Lane, and having passed the bust of Samuel Pepys (whose office was situated where the gardens on your right now stand), cross to the left side and pause outside the gate of:-
St Olave’s Church. In his essay ‘The City of the Absent’ in The Uncommercial Traveller, Dickens describes this as ‘One of my best beloved churchyards… I call [it] Saint Ghastly Grim…’ He continued: ‘It is a small churchyard, with a ferocious strong spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes a-top of the stone skulls, as though they were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears…’ The gate has survived the ravages of time and pollution, and its skulls still leer down from their timeworn perch.