I had a mission: photograph tourists visiting the ancient Tower of London. My client hired me to create lasting images of Tower attractions and its visitors and as a bonus I was able bring my wife Colleen over to London as a little New Year’s present. It was a win-win situation, except for the bloody cold. The day, December 31st – the last of the year, dawned frosty but bright, a good sign. We got ready, loaded up a big black London cab with my camera gear and headed for the austere Tower. The famous old fortress, originally constructed in 1078 by William the Conqueror has seen it all including notable prisoners like Thomas Moore and Rudolph Hess, the beheading site of Lady Jane Grey and Ann Boleyn, and the site of an aborted robbery of the Crown Jewels perpetuated by Colonel Thomas Blood. However, for the last two hundred years or so, the Tower of London has quietly morphed into a fascinating, historic cash cow. People come from all over the world to see The Crown Jewels, the White Tower, the Bloody Tower, the Museum of Torture and of course those Yeoman Warders.
I arrived early that frigid Friday morning, before the crowds with pre-arranged credentials and a good plan for accomplishing my photographic goals. Only the ravens and Yeoman Warders arrived before us. I wandered about, checking meter readings and scouting angles, when the sun finally popped out over the top of the Traitor’s Gate. The amber morning rays lit up the Tower Green and illuminated the White Tower’s cupolas with silent beauty. I waited for visitors to arrive and was not disappointed. Soon, a trickle, then as usual, a cascade of tourists entered the Tower of London, eager to discover all the delightful historic pain and misery England has to offer.
While Colleen was off viewing Queen Mary’s Crown and other baubles inside the Jewel House, I began shooting the buildings, grounds, stonework and happy tourists. I photographed the visitors, as they in turn shot pictures of the buildings, the burly Beefeaters and ubiquitous ravens. Tourists occasionally glanced over at me curiously, as I smiled at them and clicked away. Then, a large man in a bright blue cape with red piping and an E II R on his chest walked over to me. He sternly inquired as to what I was doing. He half-believed my story but I continued in full confidence, showing him my business card and offering further details. Yeoman Warder Ken Bryant finally cracked a ruddy smile. We chatted, and I walked him into a sunny area where another Beefeater joined in the conversation. Then, (as I had hoped) tourists cautiously walked over. A friendly German family asked to be photographed with the Beefeaters, as countless hundreds (perhaps thousands) of visitors do every day. Yeoman Ken puffed up his considerable chest and posed. I clicked away and shot the German group and many other tourists too.
Everything was moving right along when Yeoman Ken privately asked me if I’d like to join him for tea. Without hesitation I said, “Yes, sounds great, thank you.” It was about twenty degrees (F) in the courtyard and some hot tea seemed like a fine idea. Besides, he was the only Beefeater who had ever invited me to anything. I asked if my wife could join us. He glanced around conspiratorially and said in a low voice, “Meet me here in ten minutes.” Colleen soon returned and perked up at the idea of hot tea with a friendly Beefeater, but was disappointed when I told her, “No, a gin and tonic isn’t involved.”
Exactly ten minutes later, Yeoman Ken Bryant took us on a short brisk walk. He brought us through rusty gates, and we followed him down, then up then back down ancient stairwells. I imagined we were on our way to an army barracks or mess hall, or even a dungeon – but no, he was taking us…to his house! To have tea with the wife! On this walk I learned that over 180 people actually live inside the Tower of London, in little cottages called The Casemates, attached to the forward wall. Generation of Yeoman Warders and their families have lived in these cottages for over 900 years. Soon, Ken’s wife Mary greeted us at the door, with a smile and friendly hand, like we had known each other for years. She invited us in, and laid out a fresh fruit cake and tea. Ken took off his heavy royal refinements revealing grey overalls, and other “normal” clothes beneath. He had precisely a 30 minute break, so he went to work without delay on his bacon sandwich. He said, between bites, that his superiors would “shoot me if I’m late returning.”
Their cozy home was very warm and reminded me of similar little apartments I’d visited in London years ago. It couldn’t have been more than 600 square feet. A tiny but well-ornamented Christmas tree stood in the corner and Christmas Cards covered the walls and mantel. We learned that Ken had been a British army officer for most of his adult life, (a requirement for Warders) and had been a Yeoman Warder for the past twenty years. Mary told us of their vacation a few years back, in California, and how they hope to return someday. The hot English tea hit the spot and the cakes tasted stickily sweet with a bit ‘o rum left on the tongue. This respite, full of conversation with these two fine people, in their home, strangers to us until only an hour before, was extraordinary. Colleen and I looked at each and grinned with amazement. After a few minutes, Ken put on his heavy woolen garments, said goodbye and departed. Shortly after that, we thanked Mary for her kindness and left too, walking back, this time up the darkened stairwells. We laughed about this incredible, unexpected encounter.
I still had work to accomplish and over the next few hours photographed many other Yeoman Warders engaging visitors with their vibrant storytelling, but never saw my new friend, Yeoman Warder Ken Bryant again. Perhaps he had melted away, into the stone walls of the past, and he and his wife were never real, friendly phantoms in an alternate world. I kept asking myself, “Did that really happen?”
Yeoman Warder Ken remains in my memories years later, a large, gruff and jolly sort who took me into his home for no other reason than to share tea with strangers. I learned about human kindness that chilly December morning, more than cold stone fortresses, kings and ancient British history could ever teach.
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c. Bob Ecker 2014
*The best way to visit London from San Francisco (SFO) is to fly non-stop aboard the incomparable Virgin Atlantic. Tell them I sent you.