Contrary to historical precedent, Mrs W lost her head before she went to the Tower of London. The chain of events leading to her decapitation, which I hasten to add was metaphorical, began when she overcame a lifelong fear of heights and took the brave step of acquiring a pair of high heels. The elegant footwear in black suede was then allowed to mature in its box for about six months. But when we were invited to the Tabasco Club’s supper at the Tower, she decided that the time had arrived for the great unveiling.
Having bought a black velvet dress and various expensive accessories to complete the ensemble, she was hot to trot. Except she didn’t. During a conversation with our friend Carolyn,who was organising the event, she was warned that the Tower was not an ideal venue for a high-heel greenhorn. “Arrrgh!”she gasped afterwards.“Cobbles! They’ve got bloody cobbles! And steps! There’s hundreds of bloody steps!”The revelation that Britain’s principal medieval castle was well endowed with these archaic features came as something of a surprise. This was the moment that my wife parted company with her normally cool head and dashed off to Covent Garden where she bought another pair of slightly less precipitous heels and – oddly to my mind, since the new footwear was also black suede – another ensemble.“I needed something with trousers,”she explained.
“How much did it cost?” I asked, always keen to show an interest in feminine fashion.
“I’m not telling you.”
On a dank November night we joined a number of guests waiting at the Tower Gate.
“I’ll tell you the history while we make our way to the White Tower,”said a jolly
Beefeater.“A thousand years in two minutes.”Ruffed and rubicund, our guide fitted the part to a tee, though he was unexpectedly keen to dispel the Tower’s grisly reputation.“It was the site of the first royal observatory and contained a menagerie from medieval times.”Since I had not visited the Tower for a few years – the past 40 years to be precise – its size came as a surprise. Like the incumbent royal family, their distant ancestors felt unhappy unless surrounded by a good acreage. There is not just one tower at the Tower but 21. Property developers must view this unattainable Gormenghast with an eye as avaricious as any medieval pretender.
Having got the sanitised history out of the way, our guide plunged into the grisly stuff.“That’s the Council Chamber,where Guy Fawkes was put on the rack – a clever device to make a smaller person into a taller person. It dislocated every joint in his body. He was then hung and disembowelled,”he announced with relish. “That green is where Anne Boleyn was executed. Henry VIII liked to chop and change his wives. Henry VI was stabbed in the back over there while saying his prayers. Sir Thomas Moore was dispatched here. He is buried in my garden.”Such ghoulish minutiae are, of course,what everyone really wants to hear about the Tower. Catering for this taste,
the Tower website sells a model of someone having their head chopped off (£7.99),
described as “great fun for smaller fans of the grisly side of British history”. A competition for a design to shroud the White Tower during forthcoming restoration is tastefully entitled “Hung, Quartered and Drawn”. Skittering over the damp cobbles, Mrs Wurgently whispered. “Hold my hand! Don’t go away.” But it was not so much the spectres of the past that concerned her as the fashionable footwear of today. Tentative as a mountaineer negotiating a tricky stretch on the Eiger, she edged her way up an oak staircase in the White Tower.
Over champagne, a leading gossip columnist asked one of the penetrating questions that got him to the top of his spicy trade: “There must be plenty of ghosts here, don’t you think?”Later, the party was cajoled towards supper across a rain-lashed cobbled courtyard and up more stairs.“Come here!” yelped Mrs W, displaying a rare passion. “Welcome to the Tower,”the Deputy Governor announced before supper.“It is much more than the most famous prison in the world. It was the home of the Royal Mint, the Ordnance Survey was founded here in the 1890s, also the Public Records Office.”Though these bodies doubtless have a fascinating history, the Deputy Governor went into more detail about other bodies more commonly associated with the Tower. “Four queens of England entered as prisoners – three are still here.”And it turned out that my gossip writer chum was right about spectral celebs.“Anne Boleyn, executed in 1536, has been seen several times – mainly by Governors’wives.” During her long totter back to the gate, Mrs W intimated that females could still have a tough time in the vicinity of the Bloody Tower: “Bloody cobbles.”