Last year, my mother-in-law was struggling to think of something to buy me for my birthday and asked if there was anything that I particularly wanted. There wasn't. I live in a small house that's under permanent siege from an army of plastic toys and DVDs - one more thing would only add to the clutter. But I still wanted a present.
Then I realised that what I needed was an experience, not a possession. I knew that my mother-in-law had just enjoyed a private tour of the Tower of London and asked if she could arrange one for me. I'd been to the Tower once as a child, but the sight of hordes of badly dressed, bumbelt-wearing tourists had put me off making a return visit.
A private viewing was the perfect solution.
The tour was booked for last Wednesday and I can't stress how satisfying it was to walk past the long queue of tourists and have a Beefeater lift up a rope to let me in. Queue jumping is a petty, slightly malicious pleasure that plays to my vain conceit that I'm a cut above the hoi polloi (I know I'm not, but it's fun pretending for a few minutes).
Once we were inside the Tower complex, I was struck by how separate it felt from the rest of London, as if we were in an independent city state like the Vatican, with only a tenuous connection to the present. Everywhere we looked, there were reminders of the Tower's sad, brutal history.
I knew about some of the more famous executions: Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, but this anecdote was new to me:
'In 1541, it was the turn of the 71-year-old Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, whose offence was being the last surviving member of the Plantagenet dynasty, overthrown by the Tudors. The Countess refused to place her head on the block, and had to be chased around the green by the executioner, who hacked her to death.' (From www.icons.org)
If you like your historical buildings to be a bit "Hey-nonny-no", where you can almost hear the sound of lutes playing, I'd recommend Hampton Court Palace. The Tower of London is all about power and retribution. Initially built to dissuade the English from rebelling against their new masters, it is now said to be the only building in London that would still be standing in a thousand years if we all suddenly became extinct.
At one point my mother-in-law turned to me and said "Well, you must have one and a half blog posts here." But I haven't. What can you say about 900 years of history that hasn't already been said?
One of the highlights of the visit was seeing the tomb of Sir Thomas More, which is in the crypt of St Peter ad Vincula. The crypt isn't open to the public and I was told that very few people are allowed to see it:
I was going to start writing about how much I admire Sir Thomas More, but I quickly realised that the entire basis of my knowledge comes from watching Paul Schofield in 'A Man For All Seasons', so it's probably better to shut up. However, it is a very good film and this final scene is very moving:
The other highlight of the visit was seeing Henry VIII's suit of armour, with it's absurd codpiece. Apparently, in the 16th century, it was fashionable to accentuate the male features (but mitigate the female ones):
This Cylon-style armour was made in the 1540s, when Henry had put on a few pounds. But there were also other suits of armour from the days when Henry was the svelte renaissance prince who composed 'Pastime with Good Company'. It was the first and last time a member of the Royal Family wrote a chart hit.
If you're not familiar with the song, here's my crude, two-part arrangement:
Not a bad tune is it? Sorry about the performance.
Once we'd seen the armour, we decided to give the Crown Jewels a miss and decamp to the nearest pub. As I nursed my thirst-quenching pint of Amstell, I reflected on how lucky I was to be born in a more civilised age.
Just as I thought this, a City banker entered with a much younger woman who clearly wasn't his wife, and found a discreet booth where they couldn't be spotted by any colleagues:
We may not hack elderly duchesses to death, but greed, lust and betrayal still have their part to play in London life.