Emma Clayton takes a journey through Royal history in the Capital

WITH the Queen's 90th birthday celebrations underway this month, the focus is on London as a city break destination.

The Capital is steeped in regal history, and at its heart is the Tower of London where you can come face-to-face with the Crown Jewels.

Displayed in a vault, comprising over 140 ceremonial crowns, sceptres, swords, maces and robes worn by monarchs, the collection datew from the mid-1600s when Charles II acceded to the throne. The medieval regalia was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell.

While some jewels still appear at royal events, other pieces, such as a ring worn by Queen Victoria at her Coronation, were used only once.

A beefeater called Spike led us around the Tower of London, through history dating back to 1066. The White Tower, built by William the Conqueror, gives the castle its name, but the site is a complex of buildings surrounded by walls and a moat. With winding streets and a patchwork of houses built over the centuries, it's like a little town, set against the 21st century London backdrop dominated by the shimmering Shard.

The Tower has been a prison, treasury, Royal Mint headquarters, public records office, and home to the Crown Jewels. Prisoners held there include Anne Boleyn, Guy Fawkes, Rudolf Hess and the Kray twins, held for failing to report for national service in 1952. Particularly poignant is the story of the young princes in the tower, said to have been murdered by their uncle, Richard III.

While most executions took place on nearby Tower Hill, seven were in the Tower grounds. Lady Jane Grey, uncrowned Queen of England, was among those meeting their fate on Tower Green, where a glass memorial now stands.

Our yeoman guide led us into the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, a Tudor chapel containing monuments to Tower residents and those executed. Among the headless bodies laid to rest there are three queens - Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey.

The ravens traditionally associated with the Tower have witnessed some sights over the centuries. The saying goes that if they fly away, "the Crown will fall and Britain with it". Today six ravens (and a spare) are kept at the site, as we passed their aviary they looked as menacing as they must have looked perched on the castle walls, watching heads roll.

Ravens weren't the only creatures at the Tower, once home to a menagerie of exotic animals from around the world. A polar bear given to Henry III by the King of Norway in 1252 swam, on a leash, and caught fish in the Thames. Other animals included an African elephant, leopards, lions, ostriches, monkeys and snakes kept warm in a bag on a stove. Dotted around the grounds today are striking sculptures of apes, lions and the fishing bear on its leash.

Walking around the walls, we discovered a charming row of cottages below, complete with washing lines - a little 'des res' a stone's throw from an execution site and torture chamber. The remains of torture at the Tower are manacles, a wooden stretch rack and a crushing device called the ‘Scavenger’s Daughter’.

A few Tube later, I was at the One Aldwych in the relaxing haven of a Deluxe room, with fresh fruit and flowers and crisp cotton bedding. A short walk from Covent Garden, the hotel is well placed for London attractions, not least the 20 or so surrounding theatres. The room overlooked the Lyceum Theatre, where crowds were arriving for The Lion King. The hotel has a chic, boutique feel, with a health club with chlorine-free pool, sauna, steam room, gym, spa treatments, and private lounge.

After a cocktail in the Lobby Bar, buzzing with pre-theatre drinks, we dined in stylish hotel restaurant Indigo on a mezzanine above the bar. Executive chef Dominic Teague has created a gluten and dairy-free menu, bridging tradition and "gentle invention", which includes foraged foods and British dishes with flavoursome twists. I started with crab, potted shrimp and pickled mackerel, followed by chickpea panisse then a fabulous chocolate mousse. My friend had watercress soup, with a poached egg, and steak.

Next morning, after a breakfast of gluten-free muesli with blueberries, poached eggs, mushroom, spinach and avocado, with rye toast, we headed to Embankment and boarded an MBNA Thames Clipper, using River Roamer tickets connecting some of the capital's top attractions. Passing the Tower of London and Traitors' Gate, I thought of prisoners brought along the Thames. Emerging from under London Bridge, where the heads of executed prisoners were displayed on pikes, the sight greeting them was the Tower, their final destination.

Today's Thames traffic is more leisurely. Passengers can hop on and off the clipper but we stayed on it for a relaxing Sunday cruise, taking in London's skyline. Old waterfront warehouses, now chic apartments, jostle alongside glass-fronted commercial blocks, while narrow streets and wharfes nodded at the bustling history of London's docklands.

We reached the O2 arena and passed beneath cable cars high above the river, then came the splendid Georgian architecture of Greenwich, with the Royal Naval College standing proud.

In just 24 hours we'd explored various corners of London's history, on land and water.


* Rooms at The One Aldwych start from £280 (including VAT) for one night. Call (0207) 3000500, email reservations@onealdwych.com or visit onealdwych.com

* MBNA Thames Clippers offers services to central London from 20 piers. River Roamer ticket prices start from £11.55 for an adult and £5.75 for a child with a Travelcard. Visit thamesclippers.com