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#106 Ceremony of the Keys and #105 Yeoman Warders’ Bar

October 25, 2011

The Tower of London at night. If ever a place was due its share of ghosts, it's this one.

Who comes there?”
The keys.”
Whose keys?”
Queen Elizabeth’s keys.”
Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well.”

Every night for the past 700 years, something a lot like these words has been spoken as the Tower of London has been locked up. not a single day has been missed – or at least that’s what we’re told. You and see it yourself, if you don’t mind booking. Just before 10pm, a small, hushed crowd of civilians watches as the red-uniformed soldiers march down the darkened outer lane of the Tower, carrying a lantern and the keys. The words above are exchanged, the Last Post is bugled, and the keys are marched away into the safety of the Tower itself.

It’s another one of those quaint and, if truth be told, slightly icky reminders of the continuity of our feudal past. It’s the kind of thing you protest to Americans that we don’t do it any more. But we do, and I get the feeling more of this sort of thing happens than we’re ready to admit. Ceremonies have momentum: big, heavy ones like this keep on rolling and rolling, long after we’d assume they’d stopped. There’s an odd air about the ceremony. Not mournful, exactly, but certainly weighted with unseen history. We’d guess that the times when it feels most ceremonial are when nobody is around to see it, when the keys pass from hand to hand in the lonely dark.

For our viewing of the ceremony, we were lucky enough to get a personal guided tour by one of the 36 yeoman warders (the ‘beefeaters’), after which we were treated to slap-up meal in the warders’ very own private bar, in the shadow of the White Tower. This isn’t a place the public usually gets to see.

It was a peek into a totally different world. Imagine the kind of personalised pub that beefeaters might drink in, in some kind of stylised newspaper-cartoon world. Double it, and you’re somewhere near the truth. Every surface (that wasn’t covered with the insignia of the many companies whose soldiers have been selected as beefeaters) was draped in beefeater memorabilia. Posters, figures, swords, postcards, commemorative everything. Guess which brand of gin they had behind the bar? It was perfect, in other words. A tiny corner of secret London that was utterly happy with itself, a mixture of tranquility, pride, kitsch and bloody-mindedness that was unmistakeably British.

Is it a close-up of a tiny portion of the bar's beefeater memorabilia? Or is it AVENGERS SUPERVILLAIN SPOILERS?

It’s somehow heartening to know the yeoman warders are still watching over the Ceremony of the Keys, protecting the realm in some strange and almost occult way. Maybe there’s another 700 years of ceremony to go.

Hey! Look! This is entry 105. That means that finally – yes – we’re halfway through our ridiculous quest. 67 days to go, and 106 more entries? Of course it’ll be fine! You’ve just got to believe in yourselves! Oh god. Hold tight. Here we go…

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