An ancient and mighty fortress, and beside it a subterranean shopping centre that is a hive of tat and tourist trinkets. It’s easy to miss the shopping centre, fortunately, which is probably why few Londoners even know it exists, but right next to the Tower of London there is indeed such a place.
It’s exceptionally easy to miss with the entrance on the main road simply advertising an underground branch of KFC, but walk around to the other side, and there it is, an easy to ignore hole in the wall advertising the Tower Vaults.
It is not a set of vaults associated with the ancient Tower though, and despite it’s ancient appearance, it’s actually quite a modern building.
The site of the Tower Vaults used to be the site of the huge eight-storey Mazawattee Warehouse built by George Myers in 1864, but it was extensively damaged in WW2 by bombs, and just after the war, a local charity, the Tower Hill Improvement Trust bought the land and demolished the buildings in order to create a more pleasant landscape around the Tower of London.
The Tower Vaults is the surviving part of the warehouse, and includes three levels of vaults, of which the uppermost level is now the Tower Vault’s Shopping Centre.
The Trust still owns the vaults, although they recently agreed a 150 year lease with the Fishmongers Company, and they were revamped in 1987 and in 2001. Above is a terrace that was built to create a viewing platform of the Tower, but that’s long since been blocked off by a coffee chain store that sits on top of the vaults and the newish ticket sales building for the Tower.
There is another entrance to the Vaults here as well, although mainly advertising itself as a way to another chainstore food outlet, most people probably don’t turn left when down here to venture into the vaults.
And why would they, for a visit would be dispiriting.
It seems to be a trait of high-traffic tourist areas that they attract the roughest of retailers, seeking to flog overpriced tat that somehow sells in vast quantities to people who think a British flag made in China is the ideal present to have.
Down here is the KFC, at the far end of the brick arches, but closer, and on my visit, almost entirely empty a classic greasy spoon cafe offering “very cold beer” next to a poster offering fish and chips… with wine.
Bureau de change, Memories of London selling Scottish tartan, shops flogging the London Pass, others proud to sell Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Buy theatre tickets, and London branded sweatshirts made in a sweatshop. Dated signs still promoting camera film from the pre-smartphone era.
Everything’s on sale, with discounts a plenty. Treat yourself to fish and chips, or chicken and chips, or cheeseburger and chips.
Save pounds, buy tickets, visit the Tower Vaults.
Curiously, the site could be a haven of up-market retail. The location ideal, the vaults, underneath the gaudy signs is delightful and the little shops have a design that wouldn’t look out of place in a posh Piccadilly Arcade.
But, to do so would destroy a curiously ghastly delight. Too much has been sanitized already. There is reassurance that London still retains these spaces, and there’s a literal underground where lurks the dark underbelly of tourist tat and greasy food.
Long may it survive.