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We went behind the scenes at the Tower of London with the Chief Yeoman Warder

By Time Out in association with Historic Royal Palaces

Alan Kingshott has served as a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London for 18 years. For the last four of those he’s been the Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower, overseeing the team of 37 warders (Beefeaters, to you) whose duties include taking visitors on tours of the Tower each day, bringing its history to life, looking after the security of the Tower and its surrounding area. That's right – it’s not just about wearing a funky outfit. Laura Lee Davies snuck inside the Tower one morning before opening time, to get a glimpse into Alan’s world. Photography by Scott Chasserot.

9am. The Opening Ceremony

Every morning, the main gates of the Tower of London are officially unlocked by the Chief Yeoman Warder or one of his fellow warders on duty. Marching from Traitor’s Gate, flanked by four regimental guards, he unlocks the outer gate and the Tower is then officially open to the public. Alan’s Guards are armed and although our photographer, Scott, has permission to take photographs, there does come a point where the rest of us gathered to watch the ceremony start to wonder if these soldiers will be obliged to attack if he doesn’t get out of their way soon enough. Given that the Tower holds the Crown Jewels, it’s reassuring to know that Alan won’t tell us every detail of his security arrangements, but we (and the small crowd of tourists assembled to watch the ceremony) are impressed that the keys to the Tower of London are kept on a huge iron ring. It wouldn’t be the same if the gates were opened with a regular key, now, would it?

 9.15am. Meet the raven team

Inside the Tower, life is already bustling. Over 100 people, including Yeoman Warders and their families, live inside the Tower, and Alan’s duty shift began a while ago. But this is a brilliant time to visit the Tower of London if you’re a Londoner. The crowds haven’t arrived yet and the buildings stand waiting for you to explore their history in relative peace.

Just inside the inner wall and in front of the White Tower, the famous ravens are perched in their elegant, new night enclosures. ‘You have a murder of crowds and an unkindness of ravens,’ says Alan, ‘and for good reason.’ One of the ravens lives separately and is first let out at 10am, then the others are allowed out. The two oldest ravens don’t come out at all, in case the others attack them. But surely they don’t attack people, we ask, taking a step back. Alan’s colleague Barney, one of the Raven Team of Yeoman Warders, shows us a couple of scars. ‘A couple of years ago, I had one sitting on my arm and it attacked my lip,’ says Alan. ‘I knew she wouldn’t let go so I just had to pull her off and see how much of my lip was left afterwards.’ As a result, Alan keeps a safe distance as Barney takes us to meet Merlin (aka Merlina, pictured), luring her out with the promise of a dog biscuit treat. Looking at the bottom of their cages, where the furry remains of last night’s dinner lays, they clearly eat more than dog biscuits. ‘Oh, I’ve known them to eat Haribo left by visitors before now,’ says Barney.  

9.45am. Desk time

Hidden behind the walls, among the towers full of armour, jewels and a thousand years of history, the Tower of London also houses the working offices of Historic Royal Palaces. Alan’s office is based in the same building that houses the Crown Jewels. He works alongside other colleagues who help to look after the Tower (a big job, but they seem surprisingly calm) and two pet dogs. The two pooches toddle from desk to desk, occasionally jumping onto Alan’s lap as he catches up with emails. On his walls there are photos that trace his colourful career at the Tower. His granddaughters meeting The Queen, certificates and framed prints of significant ceremonies. As a Yeoman Warder, Alan is part of the family community within the Tower and over the years he’s seen his daughter get married in the Royal Chapel and his grandchildren christened there.

10.30am. The Chief meets the newest recruit

We are granted a special privilege as Alan invites us into the Yeoman Warder’s Club. You have to be a warder to get into the clubhouse or one of their invited guests. And you can’t wear denim, ‘The devil’s cloth.’ Of course, the bar is closed so it isn’t busy, but this gives us a clear view of the badges and plaques and other honours on display. ‘This is the only bar left, but there used to be 37 different bars and inns inside the Tower’s walls.’ Wow, when was that? ‘A little before my time,’ says Alan. ‘About 500 years ago.’

Alan’s here to catch up with Lawrence, the latest recruit to the Yeoman Warder team. Warders have to meet a very specific range of criteria to qualify for application. For a start, they must be a former Warrant Officer, class 1 or 2 and hold the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. They must have served with the regular armed services for at least 22 years, and beyond this, they have to go through a rigorous interview process to ensure they have the personality to take their role seriously but also be a friendly ambassador for the Tower with the public. Lawrence has long admired the role and the history of the Tower, so after a two-year break in the civilian workplace, he has joined the Yeoman Warders. However, he’s not in uniform yet.’ He does have his uniform,’ explains Alan, ‘But we wanted him to be able to walk around and observe the duties this week. As soon as he puts that uniform on, he'll be inundated with questions about the Tower and where the loos are and all that!’


11am. Out and about

Alan always has a line and a quick reply to anything you ask him. It’s all part of what to the public seems like an effortless performance. He jokes with a young school party to the children's great delight, though you can tell they also seriously believe their teacher, who’s reminded them about the castle’s history as a prison and suggested that any naughty behaviour might result in a stay at the Tower. ‘My grandson was doing a project about castles at school,’ recalls Alan, ‘And his mum suggested that he could do this place. But he’d never really seen it as a castle, just a place where his gran and granddad worked. But when I saw what he’d written – “The Tower of London was built in 1966 by William the Great” – I decided it was time for me to pay a visit to his school and give them a history lesson!’ Yeoman Warders get to know the whole history of the Tower and are sometimes also asked to present special talks for events like the evocative (almost eery) Twilight Tours. Tomorrow Alan is taking a day off to speak to his wife’s Women’s Institute group. Are you always putting on a performance, I ask, foolishly walking into a classically dry Yeoman Warder reply. ‘Oh yes, my wife says I’m always performing.’


11.30am. A cup of tea in his flat

When Alan left the army and took a regular job for a few years, before becoming a Yeoman Warder, his commute was an hour’s drive, then three hours. Happily, it’s now three minutes. (‘Or three seconds if I miss my footing on those stairs.’) Getting to Alan’s flat is like climbing a turret in a castle, because he lives two floors above the main gates at the Byward Tower. It’s impossible to hide our wonder. This is exactly where you’d choose to live if you were playing castles with a Playmobil set.

Although daily life is a lot less ordinary for Alan and his wife than it is for most Londoners, they do have a life outside the Tower walls too. One of their favourite hobbies is ballroom dancing and Alan's been known to take a turn or three as a regular at the Rivoli Ballroom, a plush, 1950s dancehall just across the water, in south east London.



At home in history

‘You don’t have to live at the Tower of London when you’re a Yeoman Warder, but most people choose to,’ he says. ‘You pay rent and bills like everyone else, but it is a different experience. The floorboards are original and they can be a pain to vacuum, and you have to buy furniture that comes apart to get them through the doorways! The bedroom used to be a prison cell – it still has locks on the outside of the door. You can make your own joke about that,’ he smiles. Alan’s wife, Pat, also used to work at the Tower of London, as a Jewel House team leader. They live at the Tower most of the week but have now also bought a house in West Sussex near where they used to live, as Alan prepares for retirement.

Slipping into something uncomfortable

When you picture a Yeoman warder you probably think of their bright red coat and shiny gold adornments. Day to day, they wear their smart dark blue and red uniform, but the red coat is part of their ceremonial garb and it weighs a ton. Alan shows us his uniform and explains why the ruff isn’t rough at all, and how the full gear takes about 20 minutes to put on. After nearly two decades on the job, he’s also rather proud that he can still (just) fit into his original uniform.

Noon. All’s quiet on the Tower front

Did I mention that Alan lives in the Byward Tower? I did? Cool, isn’t it? On the floor below his flat, you can see where the portcullis is held in place by thick ropes. Visitors pass below, oblivious to our position. At the bottom of the tower, next to the huge oak gates, the Yeoman Serjeants' office is a calm but busy control room where three warders sit in front of computer screens. Despite this intrusion of technology (and the electric kettle) the thick tower walls and fire remind you that this was the place, for hundreds of years, where they kept a serious eye on the business of keeping royalty safe, prisoners in and ne’er-do-wells out.

These days, of course, it's all a lot more welcoming. The Serjeants give us a few tips for seeing the Tower at its best. 'Arrive early. That way you get to see the place before it gets busy. If you're a Londoner, it's good to come on a weekday or weekend outside the summer season – we're open all year round. And join the free Warder's Tour when you come in – you'll hear lots of good stories to set the scene for what you're looking at.' 'Leave yourself enough time, don't hurry. There's so much to see that you can spend a whole day here exploring everything about the Tower.'

For anyone who lives at the Tower, the main gates close at 9.30pm and after that, the warder on duty at the Yeoman Serjeants' office has to unlock the gates for them. ‘You’ll notice,’ says Alan, ‘That the gates don’t have keyholes on the outside.’ And with a knowing smile, he’s off to his next meeting.

Tower of London, Tower Hill, EC3N 4AB. Find out more about the Tower of London.

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