Visiting an iconic site virtually can be a great way to avoid the crowds, the queues and the high costs of travel. It can also mean you get to hear everything that the guide is saying without any distractions and can be a good way of seeing sites for those who are less physically able, or if the sites are closed for extended periods of time.
We tried out a virtual tour of the Tower of London in the summer of 2020, when much of the world was closed down.
The Tower of London is a much visited tourist attraction, usually with endless queues and huge crowds. We tried out the virtual tour by TakeWalks, who usually do this tour in person when the tower is open.
The Virtual Tour
After being introduced to our guide, Katherine, by the Walks Coordinator in Paris, the tour started without delay. Katherine is a blue badge guide, who normally escorts groups of people on tours around the tower, so she was well placed to tell us all about it.
The tour started with the help of Google Maps, showing where the Tower is in relation to the rest of London and an aerial view of the whole tower - or should that be towers, as there are in fact 21 towers around the centrally located White Tower in the centre.
The Tower of London was actually a fortress, built by William the Conqueror who knew that the people might rise up against him, so he wanted to show his strength as well as provide good defence. Katherine explained how the White Tower would have been the tallest structure in all of England when it was built, with walls 6ft thick and an entrance which is 6ft off the ground.
The tower has never been breached in its 1000 year history, although in 1381 they accidentally let in some rioting peasants.
Want to see the Opening Ceremony? This video is 14 minutes long and shows you what happens behind the scenes
We were shown video footage of the daily Opening Ceremony, something that few people get to see. A Yeoman warder walks with a bunch of keys to Traitors Gate, where he picks up an escort of armed guards, and they then all walk to the main gate and open it up for the tourists.
This dates back to a time when the tower was opened up every day for locals to enter, including many pickpockets and thieves.
Although it is now just paying guests who enter, the tradition continues.
One big advantage of doing this tour virtually was seeing the Crown Jewels.
Katherine explained that if she was leading a real tour around the tower, all guides would be made to wait outside while the tour group shuffled through to look at the jewels, often with a two hour wait to get in.
With a virtual tour however we were shown close up photographs of the jewels, with no delays or crowds in the way, and she was able to explain the significance of them all to us.
The crown jewels all date from after 1660, even though the coronation ceremony has remained unchanged for over 1000 years.
When Cromwell was made Lord Protector after the English Civil War, he melted down all of the ancient crown jewels and sold them off - the only one that survived was the golden spoon you can see on the top left of the picture, which dates from the 12th century and somehow escaped his greedy intentions.
The rest are all replicas of the originals, which were needed for coronations from Charles II onwards, after the Restoration.
These include St. Edwards Crown which is only ever allowed to be touched by the Queen and Archbishop of Canterbury, and a scepter which contains a diamond called the Great Star of Africa, which was once part of the largest diamond ever found.
A video by a national newspaper about the revamped Crown Jewels exhibition in 2012
A jewel encrusted sword called the Sword of Offering was made for God, and there is a diamond wedding ring to symbolise that the monarch is wedded to the nation.
The golden spoon is used by the archbishop; it is filled with holy oil and used to anoint the monarch in the only part of the coronation ceremony which was not televised, as it was considered such a sacred moment.
We were shown some footage of the actual coronation in 1953 which really brought the objects to life.
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
The Crown Jewels today are kept in a barracks building built in the 18th century inside the tower, but for many years they were simply kept in a locked cupboard, protected by a single warden, and people could just go in and ask to see them.
In 1671, they were stolen by a man called Thomas Blood, who knocked out the warden and ran, but was apprehended and faced the death penalty. He requested a meeting with the King, which was only brief, but when he left he had been granted his freedom, a generous pension and some land in Ireland.
No one ever knows what he said to the King to get away with his crime.
The Tower of London was the scene of some grisly deaths. The tower was used as a prison for many years, often for the great and the good of society.
The two young ‘Princes of the Tower’ were kept and killed here in the 1480s. Most people imprisoned there were executed outside the tower walls, in a grand public spectacle for all to see.
Only a privileged few were executed inside the Tower, ten people in total, who included Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey, who was executed at the tender age of 16.
The last execution in the tower was that of Josepf Jakobs, a German spy who was killed by firing squad in 1941; we were shown a photograph of the simple wooden chair he had sat in, which is on display in the tower.
The tour ended on a cheerful note however, with some photos of the most famous residents of the Tower - the ravens. Ancient legend decrees that if there are ever less than 6 ravens nesting in the tower, then the monarchy and England will fall. They are looked after by just one man, the Ravenmaster. Raven Jubilee and partner had five babies during the first lockdown of 2020, quite an achievement, as most tower ravens have to come from a breeder in Somerset.
The guide was excellent and the format was easy to use - we were able to ask questions through the chat feature and didn't have to appear on screen or talk at any point.
It would be perfect for people who were not familiar with much British history as it explained everything very clearly and simply, which would make it ideal for children from about 12 upwards.
How to book a virtual tour of the Tower of London
Just £7, you can book the virtual tour on the TakeWalks website here
How to book the physical tour of the Tower of London
The physical tour can be booked on the TakeWalks website here, and costs £56 per person