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COVID-19 Threatens 500 Year Tradition At The Tower Of London


The Yeoman Warders have stood watch at the Tower of London since the reign of Henry the VII. They're commonly known as Beefeaters. And with their ornate red and gold costumes, they're the embodiment of British royal pageantry. Now, as Elliot Hannon reports, the pandemic is threatening this 500-year tradition.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Show your tickets at the entrance.

ELLIOT HANNON, BYLINE: Earlier this month, the Tower of London reopened for business after a four-month hiatus. The 12-acre castle is one of Britain's show-stopping tourist attractions. It sits on the bank of the Thames River in the middle of downtown London and, for more than a thousand years, has served as a royal residence, a prison and now home to the royal family's crown jewels. But when the tower finally did reopen, only a trickle of visitors actually showed up to see the crown jewels and watch the Beefeaters perform their daily guard duties.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Escort to the keys. Halt. Inward tuck...

HANNON: The guards aren't providing the real security for the priceless jewels housed in the tower. Instead, the Beefeaters, with their intricately embroidered uniforms and top hats - think Beefeater Gin - pose for pictures and tell visitors about the tower's long history. And that's made them a hit with tourists. It's also a job the retired servicemen and women take seriously, says Michael Ainsley from the trade union that represents them.

MIKE AINSLEY: They're all from the armed forces, and they are all extremely loyal to the Crown and to their role. So for them, much more than a job. And, of course, many of them live in the tower with their families, as well.

HANNON: But with the collapse of tourism, the royal charity that operates the Tower of London and other sites is facing more than a hundred million dollar shortfall this year. To help close the gap, some of the Beefeaters could be laid off for what's thought to be the first time since the unit was formed in 1485. Before the pandemic, as many as 15,000 people might cram their way into the tower on a given day. This summer, the number of visitors is capped at a thousand for social distancing purposes. Even fewer are showing up. Union rep Michael Ainsley says that needs to change fast to save jobs.

AINSLEY: Unless we do get tourists coming from abroad and predominately from the USA very soon, then we're looking at two or three years of depressed trading.

HANNON: But the drop off in the tourist business, Ainley says, is actually a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. No crowds.

AINSLEY: Look. You know, it's a good time to come and visit, so please come and visit.

HANNON: For NPR News, I'm Elliot Hannon in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elliot Hannon