I have been a tourist guide for nearly forty years now but had never, until last Monday, seen the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. It has taken place every night for over 600 years – so there was a bit of catching up to do. A group of guides were invited to the Tower for an evening visit with a tour, a visit to their pub and a chance to watch the ceremony. I was one of these and, not realising it clashed with England’s first game in the World Cup, accepted. Then it seemed rude to back out for a mere footy match. So, at seven o’clock I arrived at the Tower with my suit and tie (smart dress was required) having just come back from Bath and Stonehenge with a student group. It was a long day with another one to come.
But worth it. The ceremony involves both the serving soldiers who act as guards at the Tower and the retired servicemen and women who have taken on the role of Yeoman Warders. It is the sort of thing we do well in Britain, ceremonial, traditional, unchanging. It takes place every night and was only once delayed (for seven minutes) when a bomb dropped on the Tower during the last war. You are not allowed to take photographs – although footage somehow ended up on YouTube – and are asked to shout a big ‘Amen’ as the Chief Yeoman Warder ends the ceremony with a cry of ‘God preserve Queen Elizabeth!’
Our guide was John who has Been a Yeoman Warder for five years. To get the job you have to have served at least twenty two years in one of the armed services and have long service and good conduct medals. In what was obviously an old joke, John said that this means you never got caught. He competed with 150 other people when he decided to hang up his army uniform and apply for the Beefeater one. No-one knows where the name ‘Beefeater’ comes from, the usual explanation being that the ate at the king’s table and, as people assumed the monarch ate roast beef at almost every meal, the nickname naturally followed.
As a Beefeater, you get to live in the Tower, wear both the everyday dark blue uniform and the fancy red one on ceremonial occasions (about a dozen times a year) and also conduct tours for the public. I learned that it was the Duke of Wellington as Governor of the Tower, who had stopped the practice of selling on the rights to the job and opened it up to all retired soldiers. It is now open to servicemen who have served in any of the forces (Navy, RAF and Marines) and now women as well, there being two female warders in residence these days out of a total of at least thirty seven.
The keys ceremony starts with the Chief yeoman warder bringing the keys along and being challenged by the sentry who cries out, ‘Halt, who comes there?’ The Warder replies, ‘The keys.’ ‘Whose keys?’ ‘Queen Elizabeth’s keys.’ ‘Pass then, all’s well.’ Then you have a bugler play the last post (pretty terribly, it has to be said on this occasion) before the keys are put away for the night. We then had the chance to go back to the bar or home for the night. I had another early start the next day so it was latter for me.
Tickets for the Ceremony: hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/explore/ceremony-of-the-keys/#gs.HIpc6wE
My post on Beefeater gin is at :http://diaryofatouristguide.blogspot.com/2017/12/mothers-ruin.html