London Drum

Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London

Ceremony of the Keys
Where? Tower of London, Tower Hill When? Every night 9.30 PM to 10.05 PM Price? £5 They usually release the tickets a couple of months in advance but you should try and apply for them immediately because they get snapped up quickly (and that's not an exaggeration!) · See Parking: Nearby car parks Buses: 15, 42, 78, 100, RV1 Bus fares Trains: The closest station is Tower Hill Circle District Other nearby stations: Aldgate and Tower Gateway Train fares

Craig’s review… One of the best things about attending the Ceremony of the Keys is that you get to see a little bit of London at night. It starts at half-past nine but if you take the tube straight to Tower Hill then you're missing out on a treat. It's much better to take the tube to London Bridge instead and then walk along the river towards HMS Belfast and City Hall, with the White Tower illuminated across the water. Then you can stroll across Tower Bridge and have a sit-down before it starts.

I arrived at 9 PM and there was absolutely nobody around. Everything was shut up and silent so it was just the yellow lamplights and me. That was quite atmospheric right there, before anything had even happened.

The Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters)

As you approach 9.30 PM the Yeoman Warder will come and open the gate and let you all in. There were probably about thirty people in my group by this time, but that rapidly swelled to a couple of hundred once we got inside (as I will explain later).

The whole thing is extremely atmospheric. The Tower of London is totally empty of guests at this time of night and the only souls around are the Yeoman Guard and you. I've been to this place plenty of times during the day but it wasn't until I came to this ceremony after dark that I really appreciated what it must have been like all those years ago. The cobbled streets are dark and spooky and lit with yellow lamplights, there are a few lit windows and spotlights illuminating the towers but the only other light comes from the moon.

The Byward Tower at the Tower of LondonPhoto: Craig Cross
The Byward Tower at the Tower of London

The Byward Tower & Traitor's Gate

As he walks you through the Byward Tower he tells you a quick potted history of the fortress because he's on a very tight schedule (he has to get it done before the ceremony starts). He also had some good ghost stories and pointed out the rooms where Guy Fawkes was interrogated, Thomas More was imprisoned, and where the two little princes were murdered. You don't actually get to see inside any of these places though -- he just points out the windows as you creep underneath. Then he walks you down to St. Thomas's Tower and assembles everyone on the kerb by Traitor's Gate.

Water Lane inside the Tower of LondonPhoto: Craig Cross
Water Lane inside the Tower of London

A little piece of advice: if you want to get the best view of the upcoming ceremony then it's important that you take up a good position at this point. Your group is only small, but you definitely want to be standing exactly on the edge of the kerb (which will be at the front of the group). Try and get as close as possible to the right-hand side of the group so you can see directly through the Bloody Tower arch. You want to be able to see through that arch, and all the way back down the road where you've just come from as well... all the way back to the Byward Tower. If you can see both of those places then you've done well.

Once you've lined up on the kerb the Yeoman Warder will tell you exactly what's going to happen next. It's quite a quick little ceremony and it goes on all around you, so you might want to have a proper listen to get the most out of it. It's also at this point that your little bunch might swell with another couple of hundred guests. He explained to us that these interlopers were on a corporate night out, but luckily they were given a spot directly across the road so they didn't spoil our view.

Yeoman Warder accompanied by four Foot GuardsPhoto:
Yeoman Warder accompanied by four Foot Guards

The actual ceremony will begin when a single Yeoman Warder enters stage-left, swinging an old-fashioned lantern on the end of a pole. You can see him way off in the distance at the Byward Tower and watch him walk all the way down to Traitor's Gate where he wheels left, into the arch under the Bloody Tower, where he picks up an escort of four armed guards. They will then march back to the first tower again and lock it, before returning to Traitor's Gate.

At this point another soldier who has been standing guard to your right will lunge forward, lower his gun and challenge them with a threatening shout of "Halt, who comes there!" The Warder will reply: "The Keys!" "Who's keys?" he says. "King Charles' keys!" That's the password that lets them under the arch and he says: "Pass King Charles' Keys, and all is well".

You have to be quick at this point because you're supposed to follow the soldiers through the arch, and those extra 200 people will try and get ahead of you -- so hot foot it through the arch as quickly as you can.

The White Tower & Blowing the Last Post

The soldiers will come to a halt a short distance from the stone steps and you'll see the famous old White Tower looming up on your right. The next section takes place in the shadow of the White Tower, and I thought that it was especially atmospheric. Remember that the whole place is in shadow, with just the soft sodium glow of a few lamplights to see by, and to have the White Tower suddenly loom up on your right is quite a sight.

Another set of soldiers with unsheathed swords will be blocking their path on the stone steps up ahead, and after an exchange of words the Yeoman Warder will shout "God preserve King Charles!", to which everyone replies "Amen". A lone bugler will then sound the Last Post. The whole place will fall silent at this point and you'll find yourself standing there listening to this soldier sound his sorrowful tune in the shadow of the White Tower. I defy you not to get choked up!

The White Tower with Tower Bridge behindPhoto: Craig Cross
The White Tower with Tower Bridge behind

After that the show is effectively over. The soldiers will march off to their barracks and the Yeoman Warder will lead you to the exit. The whole thing took no more than thirty minutes from start to finish, with the actual ceremony itself lasting for ten minutes. But you just have to do it -- you must!

Just remember to apply for your tickets in plenty of time because some people have to wait an entire year to get a spot -- and that's not an exaggeration.

Worth a visit? Value for money? freeGood for kids? Easy to get to?

I also recommend… If you enjoy Tower of London then you might like to visit Hampton Court Palace, Tower Hill (you can walk it in less than 2 mins) and Windsor Castle. There are three more daily parades and ceremonies in London: Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Changing the Guard at Horse Guards, and the Dismounting Ceremony

London Squire bookThe owns and has spent the last decade reviewing the capital’s landmarks, attractions and hotels. His guidebook is available from Amazon

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Your comments and questions

Margaret Hello, Craig. This was a very interesting ceremony to attend. The playing of the Last Post at the end was very moving. The other visitors, we learned on our tour, are guests of the members of a club for the Yeoman Warders, police and military, who come down from the club to observe the ceremony. The evening we were there, there were only about 40 people (aside from the people who booked online).

Craig Hi Margaret, I definitely enjoyed it as well. I'd rank it right up there as one of the best things I've done in London. I'm glad you enjoyed it

agun Can you buy tickets if you cant wait. we are coming to london in two months

Craig Hi Agun, You're out of luck I'm afraid, you can't buy them from anywhere. The waiting list can be anything from six to twelve months, but I've never known it to be as low as two.

Amanda Hello Craig, just to let you know the Ceremony of the Keys now has a charge of £5.00

Craig Hi Amanda, thanks for letting me know. I know the ceremony only lasts for ten minutes but £5 is still a bargain.

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