Another in my periodic series on how to get into places which are not obviously open to the public.
This time, I am talking about a venue which is very open to the public, being a major tourist attraction – and that is the Tower of London.
There is however something which happens in the Tower in private after the place has closed for the night to the tourists and visitors, and that is the official locking of the main entrance, known as the Ceremony of the Keys.
The Ceremony of the Keys has taken place on each and every night, without fail, for at least 700 years – although the ceremony itself has changed quite a bit over the years.
It is said that a formal method for locking up the Tower came when a former monarch was able to visit the tower one evening and found it very easy to enter the grounds. Furious that his important bastion was so badly managed he demanded a formal routine to be set up to secure the Tower each evening – and that evolved into the Ceremony which carries on to this very day.
Sometimes, red-tape and form filling isn’t that bad
A simple way of describing it would be so say it is a smaller version of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace – but unlike that event which is a huge attraction, the Ceremony at the Tower is carried out in private, with only a few guests invited to watch.
The Ceremony starts shortly before 10pm, where the Chief Yeoman Warder goes to the main gate and formally locks it. As he then returns down the road inside the grounds of the Castle, a sentry soldier standing guard stops him approaching with the cry of “Who Comes Here?” (no, not who goes there, as the Yeoman is coming here – not going there!)
“The Keys!” he replies. “Who’s Keys?” challenges the soldier. “Queen Elizabeth’s Keys!” comes the reply and the soldier shouts “Pass – Queen Elizabeth’s Keys!” and steps back.
The Yeoman then turns the corner and heads up a flight of steps which lead up to the main grounds of the Castle and joins a group of Yeoman there. At the top of the Stairs, under the command of their Officer, the Tower guard present arms and the Chief Warder raises his hat, proclaiming “God Save the Queen”, and everyone responds with “Amen”.
With that, the Tower is deemed to be locked for the night and everyone goes to bed – apart from some soldiers who remain on guard all the time.
The Ceremony has only once been filmed, for a Channel 4 TV series, and anyone invited to watch is forbidden from photographing the event.
So – how can you get to watch the Ceremony of the Keys?
There are two options:
Option A) Ask – yes, you can actually just ask to watch the Ceremony. The details for who to write to are at the end of this posting.
When you turn up at 9:30pm, you’ll be asked to stand to one side of the main road which leads into the Tower and be able to watch the beginnings of the Ceremony. As the Yeoman then heads up to the stairs, you can follow at a suitable distance and watch the final part and the sounding of the last post. It is important to note that you are not just watching though – but are expected to fully join in. When the Yeoman cries out Amen – you are required to also do the same. Also, if wearing a hat – take it off.
Once the Ceremony is over, you are now locked into the Tower for the night!
No – not quite, there is actually a small door cut into the main gate which can be opened to let you out afterwards (and drunk officers back in if late), although the door is quite small and I was told that on rare occasions it can be a struggle for the larger person to escape.
Option B) Book an evening private tour. Although you can’t actually buy tickets to watch the Ceremony, you can book an evening tour with your own Yeoman and that coincidentally happens to include permission to watch the Ceremony. The tours are not cheap, as they include drinks and canapÃ©s in the Beauchamp Tower – but they are very enjoyable and you do get a slightly better position for watching the Ceremony than the “free” tickets. You need to book the evening tour with the Tower directly – and when I did it, the cost was Â£35 a head for 15 people.
Applying for the Free Tickets:
You are allowed to apply for multiple tickets and have to provide two dates you can attend which are at least two months in advance (three months in advance if you wish to attend in July or August).
Send a letter asking to attend, along with the names all the attendees, your preferred dates AND a stamped, self-addressed envelope to:
Ceremony of the Keys Office
Tower of London
Groups are limited to a maximum of six persons between 1st April and 31st October inclusive. During the period 1st November to 31st March inclusive, groups will be limited to a maximum of fifteen persons.
You’ll get a reply back either confirming your attendance, or offering alternative dates. To increase your chance of getting tickets – apply as far in advance as possible.
Johnny foreigner is allowed to apply – but your stamped envelope has to be British to allow the reply to be posted back to you through the UK’s Royal Mail.