Going to the Tower of London

LONDON -- The kids couldn't stop talking about the two young princes.

Not the current British heartthrob William and his sports-loving younger brother Harry. My girls were mesmerized by the gory tale of two other brothers, 12-year-old Edward and 9-year-old Richard, who disappeared more than 400 years ago in the Tower of London while awaiting Edward's coronation.

The brothers were believed to have been murdered by their evil uncle Richard, who became king in Edward's place. Nearly 200 years later, bones of two children were found buried under some steps at the Tower. Though they couldn't be positively identified, they were reburied as the princes in Westminster Abbey.

Talk about an in-your-face history lesson. We were able to see where the boys' bones were found -- there is a plaque -- and walk up the crooked, winding steps of the Bloody Tower where the murders supposedly took place. We didn't see the ghosts of the two princes, dressed in white nightgowns, who have been seen there, according to Yeoman Warder Mick Casson.

Casson, one of the Tower's famous Beefeater Guards known for their distinctive red, gold and black tunics, has designed a special ``Children's Trail'' scavenger hunt for youngsters to follow as they visit the sprawling 900-year-old fortress along the Thames. (Ask for a free copy when you visit.)

As we walked, he pointed out the Tower ravens, who have been living here for more than 900 years. Since the reign of Charles II, their presence has been protected. If they leave, legend holds, a great disaster will befall the kingdom.

Everywhere we looked was something to capture the girls' interest and keep them talking for weeks afterward -- the oh-so-glittering crown jewels, the suits of shining armor (some so small they looked fit for kindergartners), plenty of ghosts -- just a few years ago, a 16th-century hand supposedly showed up in a tourist's photo -- and stories of palace intrigue and murder almost too fantastic to believe.

Yet here we stand on the exact spot where two of Henry VIII's famous wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, had their heads chopped off. That's where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned for 13 years, his study looking untouched. There's even the chance to take the path around a real moat that once protected England's kings -- straight to the Tower Hill underground station.

In my book, the Tower of London is one of the best historical attractions for families anywhere. Not the least of the draw are the 40 Yeoman Warders themselves who lead tours of the Tower and are glad to answer children's questions and pose for photos. They won't however, invite you into their homes within the tower walls.

No wonder this is Britain's top historic attraction, drawing 2.5 million visitors a year -- a third Americans. Even the Tower Gift Shop is a hit, with cuddly bears in Beefeater uniforms and a first-rate ``Tales from the Tower'' activity book chock-full of the strange facts kids seem to love. Did you know that the Tower of London, besides being a palace, barracks and prison, also was used as both as a mint and a zoo with leopards and a polar bear?

(Admission to HM Tower of London is about $16 for adults and $10.60 for children under 16. The family entrance is a good deal: about $48 for up to two adults and three kids. Call 800-806-7187 for more information and special events at the Tower and the other historic palaces, including the Tudor Evenings by Lantern Light all December at Hampton Court Palace where you can munch on Tudor canapes and sip mulled wine.)

The damp winter weather only adds to the ambience. The crowds are a lot more sparse, too, so you can spend as much time as you like ogling the jewels -- emeralds, sapphires, rubies, pearls and, of course, diamonds.

The Koh-I-Noor diamond is the most famous in the world, weighing in at 105.6 carats. Supposedly, it brings bad luck to any man who wears it, so the diamond is only worn by women. Check out the Imperial State Crown that Queen Elizabeth wore for her coronation. It has 2,800 diamonds and weighs seven pounds, so heavy that it gave one king a toothache. There are also the eye-popping coronation rings, huge golden plates, jeweled scepters and the 16 silver state trumpets.

The would-be knights in your family will get plenty of ideas to fuel their imaginations from the new Royal Armouries exhibit, complete with the silvered armor made for Henry VIII. Scientists came to the Tower to study body armor when they were first designing space suits.

My girls especially liked the small diamond crown Queen Victoria had made because she didn't like wearing big, clunky ones. This one still has 1,300 diamonds but weighs less than six ounces.

Just what they needed, they decided, for a Christmas present.

IF YOU GO: In winter, London might be cold, but it's a bargain, especially after Christmas. Virgin Atlantic has some of the best family deals going. Its four-day, three-night family package from New York at just over $600 for adults ($329 for kids under 12) includes round-trip air, transfers, hotel and breakfast, passes to attractions including Madame Tussaud's and the London Zoo and theater tickets. Add-ons are available for other cities. Call 888-937-8474.

For Web browsers, 1Travel.com is touting deeply discounted fly-drive Britain packages and royal palace tickets. Book a Thistle Hotel from mid-December through mid-April and pay dollars for pounds -- a huge savings. Stay in January and get two breakfasts per room, too. You must book and pre-pay before you leave, however. Call 800-847-4358 or www.Thistlehotels.com.

For information on the latest London doings, call the British Tourist Authority at 800-GO-2-BRITAIN or www.usagateway.visitbritain.com.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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