A peek inside the Tower of London

I lived a five-minute walk from the Tower of London for five years before I ever ventured inside. It’s really expensive, and I told myself I got the best of it by being able to walk past it every day on my way to work.

How wrong I was.

A couple of years ago I found out that residents of the London borough Tower Hamlets could get in for 1 pound. So Smarty Pants and I went, and we were completely blown away.

Last week I took my parents there, and though I had to pay full price this time it was still totally worth it.

Mom and me on the Tower wall, in front of the White Tower
Mom and me on the Tower wall, in front of the White Tower – built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century

The first thing hits you when you pass over the drawbridge and into the Tower complex is the size. It looks big from the outside, but you really have no idea until you get inside how huge it is. It’s a village.

And it’s so full of stories that it’s a fertile place for writers, readers and anyone with an imagination. Even the birds have a story. Legend has it that the kingdom will fall if the ravens ever leave the Tower, so the Tower is required to keep six ravens at all times. Right now they have eight, just in case.

Inside the Tower of London
View of Tower Bridge and the Olympic rings from inside the grounds of the Tower of London.
Inside the Tower of London
View of part of the Tower’s grounds, with the ravens’ coops in the foreground and Tudor buildings in the back. Anne Boleyn was executed just to the right of the green patch of grass.

The best part of the Tower is the tour by one of the Yeoman Warders, aka Beefeaters. They keep the Tower running. The guy who showed us around was the Ravenmaster – the ravens’ primary carer (he said, “I’m the only man in the world who can whistle and get eight birds into bed at once.”). It’s a job he can do because he lives there.

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A very British video teaches you about teatime

It’s 4 o’clock in London. Teatime.

I’ve lived in London for over six years, so believe me when I tell you that the British passion for tea may be a cliche but only because it’s absolutely true.

Even after all these years, I still don’t fully understand the traditions surrounding tea. It seems like my colleagues are always getting up from their desks and saying, “Tea?” with their heads tilted and a slight smile. The question and facial expression are always the same, no matter whether the urge for tea is a reaction to boredom, frustration with a manager or colleague, needing something hot to wash down an afternoon cake, or a desire to escape the desk and stretch the legs.

The urge for tea never seems to be prompted by thirst.

Yesterday, a friend at work brought in a lemon drizzle cake and told me we couldn’t touch it until teatime. Color me confused – isn’t tea time whenever you get yourself to the kitchen and turn the kettle on?

Apparently not. Another friend saw my confusion and sent me this video, which I think the Anglophiles among you will enjoy as much as those of you with a thing for puppets.

So make yourself a nice cuppa and watch the show. (No need to wait till it’s 4 o’clock where you are.)

If every nation in creation has its drink, what’s the favorite drink of your culture? Do you have any traditions around it?

Photo tour of London’s East End on an anti-fascist anniversary

Today marks the 75th anniversary of an extraordinary event in London’s history: the Battle of Cable Street.

On 4 October 1936, the British Union of Fascists planned a march down Cable Street in Shadwell, an impoverished part of London’s East End. The area has been home to refugees and migrants for hundreds of years. In the 1930s, many Jewish families who had fled Europe had settled in the area.

Hundreds of thousands of anti-fascists turned up and created roadblocks, determined not to let the fascists march through their neighborhoods. The police clashed with the anti-fascists until a street battle broke out.

That day, Londoners stood up for some of the poorest and most persecuted people of their time. They risked their lives to show that hatred and racism would not be tolerated.

There’s now a beautiful mural commemorating the event.

Battle of Cable Street mural

Battle of Cable Street mural
I love the look of shock on Hitler's face, and the stoicism of the RAF pilot

London’s East End is still a beautifully diverse mix of cultures that have left their stamp on the area’s history. I’ve lived here for over six years, and since I’m leaving the country soon I’m feeling nostalgic.

Historical romance readers will be familiar with my part of London. It’s portrayed as the area where criminals and doxies lived. Where heroes went for a pint in seedy public houses before being coshed on the head and press-ganged onto ships.

But to me it’s always been the city’s most diverse and welcoming area, with an incredible array of markets:

Petticoat Lane
Petticoat Lane, changed to Middlesex Street by the uptight Victorians
Spitalfields, where French and Irish weavers and dyers worked in the 17th-19th centuries

And a flourishing Sunday flower market on Columbia Road (listen to them hock the flowers to the punters)

They’re obviously irresistible.
Kat with flowers

Brick Lane is lined with curry restaurants and fabric shops for all your sari needs.

Sari fabric

And even though my part of London, Wapping, features as the sleaziest part of historic London in many novels, I prefer to think of it as the area where Britain’s sense of charity was born.

Wapping charity building
Wapping charity building

What place are you familiar with that you wish featured more accurately in fiction?