For nearly 700 years, the semi-secret Ceremony of the Keys has shuttered the Tower of London each night. But “you won’t find many pictures or videos of what happens,” said Mark Anderson, a yeoman warder and our guide for the night.
After being on a waiting list that’s usually a year long, a group was admitted at precisely 9:25 p.m. from the site’s main entrance Middle Tower. Then Mark, a Beefeater dressed in resplendent red as the overnight watchman, led visitors through the Byward Tower.
He pointed out the portcullis, dating from 1326, and the “murder hole” overhead, from which rocks, hot water, arrows and worse could be dropped to repel invaders.
In its nearly 950-year history, the tower has never been breached, save for the Peasant Revolt of 1381.
The group walked along the cobblestones before stopping at Traitor’s Gate, opposite Wakefield Tower, where Henry VI was killed in 1471.
The Tower has a long and bloody history of torture and executions, but it also has served as the Royal Mint, a zoo, an observatory, the home to the crown jewels, and even a prison until the 1950s.
Told loudly not to take any pictures and to be quiet, the crowd waited patiently until 9:53 p.m.
From the now-closed Byward Tower came four soldiers wearing bearskins, red tunics and carrying rifles. They were escorting the chief warden, who carried a lantern.
The sound of jangling keys and clicking boots was all that could be heard before a yell of “Halt! Who goes there?” came from a soldier who had appeared nearby, his bayonet aggressively lowered.
When the chief yeoman warder responded that he had “Queen Elizabeth’s keys,” the soldier stood to attention and the crowd followed the procession into the Inner Ward, where more soldiers were waiting atop the set of stone stairs by the White Tower.
On cue, a church bell rang out to signify 10 p.m. After the commanding officer conferred with the constable of the tower and the Last Post was played, there was a shout of “God save Queen Elizabeth!” and the soldiers marched away.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Tower is secured for the evening.”
How to get tickets: Tickets are free, though you’ll be charged a British pound, about $1.33, for processing. The event is currently sold out through April 2019. Check the Ceremony of the Keys website for cancellations and available dates, and book as early as you can.