‘The surrounding modern buildings show no respect for the Tower of London’

{ Posted on by }
Categories : Travel news

Bad news. Unesco may soon strip London's two most prominent tourist sites, Westminster's Parliament Square and the Tower of London in the City of their world heritage status. Chief reason is the towering Shard, which will be western Europe's tallest building, now looming over both of them from its launch pad on the south side of London Bridge. Westminster's grouping of Abbey, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Whitehall is probably far enough away to survive the shock. The Tower of London is a different matter.

The rough-and-tumble old citadel has become such a London familiar that few people really know it. William the Conqueror's White Tower still sits nobly in the centre of the composition, sadly deprived of the original limewash that gave it its name. Inside are the original apartments, two chambers to each floor, and a Norman chapel. In the basement is a magnificent armoury museum. This remains the finest 11th-century structure in Britain.

On the river side of the Tower is Traitor's Gate and a suite of medieval chambers fitted out for Henry III (who kept a zoo in the grounds). This mini-palace has been recreated, complete with throne room and peaceful oratory looking out over the Thames – a serene view touched by the sadness of those passing to their deaths beneath.

Within this palace runs the last medieval street in London, a maze of ancient walls, steps and turrets. Here are the Bloody Tower, Raleigh's prison chambers, the Crown Jewels and the "leads" where Princess Elizabeth walked and contemplated death or coronation during the reign of her Catholic half-sister, Mary. The Tower enclave as a whole is a remarkable medieval town within a town. When inside, we can just about lose ourselves in Beefeaters, ravens, blood, guts and history.

Until the 1960s Tower Hill, overlooking the tower itself, was surrounded by the buildings, mostly warehouses, of a working Georgian and Victorian city. Most eye-catching of all, Tower Bridge, designed by the City architect, Horace Jones, in 1886, rose downstream in deference to the tower itself. The most famous bascule bridge in the world and still working, it perfectly complements the battlements and vigour of the Conqueror's fortress. Visitors can climb it and look down on river and city beneath, getting a closer and more evocative view than from the big wheel upstream.

That is about it. As Unesco rightly suggests, no city in Europe has shown less concern for the setting of its historic buildings than London. St Katherine's Dock just downstream of the bridge has been partly restored, but its tower facade is wrecked by an overwhelming glass box by Lord Rogers, and by the appalling concrete Tower Hotel. Whoever allowed this to be put up should be shot, and one day I assume it will be taken down.

Across the river lies the benighted site of warehouses cleared in the 1970s and left fallow as planners argue over what to do next. Had the waterfront been restored, as happened downstream in Wapping, this area would have been yielding rent and jobs for a quarter of a century. That is the true cost of so-called redevelopment.

Directly opposite the Tower is the mayor of London's oval building designed by Lord Foster and described by former mayor Ken Livingstone as a "glass testicle". It lurches strangely towards the river with, to its right, the frigid More London development. Meanwhile, on the north bank upstream of the Tower, is a giant atrium block also by Foster, blundering across the contour.

These buildings show not the slightest respect for the Tower or Tower Bridge. They are monuments only to insipid steel and glass.

• Admission to the Tower of London (0844 482 7799, hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon) from ?17 adults and ?9 children, if booked online

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist and chairman of the National Trust

Related posts

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.