The Keys: Inside the Tower of London’s Secret Pub
Despite the fact I’m usually there once a week guiding, the Tower of London seems to constantly surprise me.
The 1,000 year old castle is not only stuffed with history, but it’s a living building with its very own residential community.
Last week I was given a special chance to feel a part of that gang for the evening, visiting the Tower after hours.
Waterloo Block, where the Crown Jewels queue would usually be, surrounded by eerie silence.
Who Lives At The Tower?
Since 1485, Yeoman Warders (full title ‘Yeomen Warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Member of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary’ – but no one can fit that on a business card) have lived in the Tower.
All ex-military, they must have served at least 22 years, gained the good conduct and long service medal and be between 40-55 when applying.
Today 37 Yeoman Warders live – with their families – as full time residents of HM Tower of London.
You may know them better by their nickname; The Beefeaters. It’s a curious name, one that might suggest either eating scraps from the King’s table or that they earned extra rations as favourites. Either way, most prefer to be referred to by their proper title.
A London Village
Surrounding a little green lawn is everything a typical English village needs; houses, a church and a doctor’s surgery.
But there’s one building that no self-respecting English town, hamlet or village can do without.
A pub, of course.
Welcome to The Keys, the Tower of London’s secret pub!
Inside is what you’d expect from a local boozer, carpet on the floor and paraphernalia on the walls.
John, our host for the evening. Each Yeoman Warder takes their turn as barman for a two week period.
But there were little quirks too. Like the Yeomen Warder dress uniforms;
The regal carpet is worth a closer look, entwined with symbols of the United Kingdom.
There’s also bespoke draught beer,
And a load of Beefeater Gin. Naturally.
Though there’s probably been some form of pub inside the Tower walls for longer, It’s been on this site for 150 years. Formerly known as the Yeoman Warders Club, it’s new name relates to an ancient duty.
It was this important responsibility that paused our gin and tonic quaffing, and we were led into the darkening Tower grounds.
The Ceremony of the Keys
The ceremony has happened every evening for over 700 years.
Let me repeat that. Every evening. For over 700 years. Without fail*.
The Ceremony of the Keys at exactly 9.52pm when the Tower of London main gates are locked for the night.
They never allow photography of the event, but here’s what happens…
A sentry calls out, “halt who goes there?” the yeoman warder whose turn it is, replies “The Keys” – “Whose Keys”? is asked. “Queen Elizabeth’s Keys”, and once that’s ok the sentry says “Pass then, all’s well”.
The key is passed to the Resident Governor and the Chief Yeoman Warder says “God Praise Queen Elizabeth”. Everyone answers with “Amen” and it’s the special job of the Yeoman Clerk to turn the massive key and Phil Wilson, currently in the role say it make a most satisfying heavy clunk.
*One night during The Blitz a bomb fell close to the Tower, knocking the guardsmen off his feet during the ceremony. After dusting themselves off though, the Yelman Warders continued. They sent a letter to the King, advising him that with deepest regret the ceremony had been delayed by 7 minutes. His response?
‘Never let it happen again.’
So there you have it, an inside look at one of London’s most exclusive pubs.
Unfortunately, as a private club, you can only visit if you know a Yeoman Warder. However you can book a place to watch the historic Ceremony of the Keys (just a head’s up, there’a about a year’s wait. The next available tickets are July 2019). You can book your free tickets here.
You can however explore the rest of the Tower, along with all its stories and secrets, on a guided private tour with me! Find out more here.