By Francesca Street, CNN
(CNN) — One day in 2021, Megan Clawson was walking home from a night out when she was inspired to record a video on her phone.
“Yo, can you imagine that Henry VIII used to come home steaming to this, and I come home steaming to this?” she said to the camera, eyes wide, laughing.
Then, Clawson turned around her cell phone to show what “this” was: the imposing stone turrets of the Tower of London, bathed in an eerie darkness.
Later, she posted the video on her TikTok: “Walking on the cobbles sober is hard enough; when you’re drunk it’s an Olympic sport,” Clawson wrote.
The Tower of London is located on the banks of London’s River Thames. Once a royal palace for infamous Tudor King Henry VIII, the fortress has also acted as a prison and played host to 900 years of British history, from the grisly and dramatic to the romantic.
Today, it’s a tourist attraction and most people only cross the waterless moat and walk through the gated archway during the daytime – tickets in hand, on their way to see the Crown Jewels or the Tower’s famous ravens.
But around 150 Londoners call the Tower home. And midway through 2020, Clawson became one of them.
Moving into a London landmark
Clawson’s father was a Yeoman Warder or “Beefeater” – one of the ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London. He moved into the Tower several years ago and when Clawson started studying at Kings College London, she’d pay him regular visits – often rocking up, laundry in hand, and staying for a cup of tea.
Then, in the wake of the Covid pandemic, Clawson decided to move in with her father permanently.
When she first hauled a suitcase over the cobbles, ready to make the Tower home, Clawson wasn’t sure how to feel. Her college experience had been upended by the pandemic. Everything felt scary and miserable. She didn’t know what the future held. And while Clawson was grateful for his love and support, living with her dad at the age of 20 had never been the plan.
“I wanted to live with my friends, and be able to go out in the middle of the night and come back in the early hours,” she tells CNN Travel today.
Instead, London was quiet. All the pubs, clubs, restaurants and museums were closed. The Tower of London, usually humming with tourists, was shuttered to everyone but its inhabitants.
Clawson’s early days in the Tower were defined by complicated emotions.
“It was both amazing and exciting. But it was still underpinned by this idea of, ‘Oh, it’s because I needed more help in a global crisis,’ more than just ‘Oh, this is my new fairytale adventure.’”
But, slowly and surely Clawson got used to life in the Tower, and London gradually woke up from its Covid hibernation.
Life in the Tower
Clawson made her bedroom in the Tower her own, putting up photographs and posters.
The cottage Clawson lived in with her father – and their dog Ethel – dated back to the 13th century. There were certain quirks – think arrow-slit windows and four flights of steep stairs – and certain rules and regulations when it came to decorating, but “it was how you would decorate any rental, really,” says Clawson.
Early on, Clawson realized the blinds to her bedroom didn’t work, so she took them down: “It was all fine because that window, there was nobody walking past there during the pandemic because the walkway was closed,” explains Clawson.
“It wasn’t until they reopened the wall without telling me that I realized I need a very, very quick solution to my non-curtain problem.”
Clawson woke up one morning to a bunch of tourists peering into her bedroom. Some were snapping photos as though she was part of the visitor attraction.
Panicking, Clawson glanced around her bedroom, looking for something she could use as a makeshift curtain. The only viable option was an old One Direction beach towel, depicting the smiling faces of Harry Styles and co.
“That was where the One Direction towel came in and lasted for far too long,” says Clawson, laughing. “It was meant to be a temporary solution that went on for a while and became a little bit of a joke after that.”
Clawson eventually took the towel down when she realized it made her bedroom more, rather than less, noticeable.
“I just used to hear people going, ‘Oh my god, is that a One Direction poster in the Tower of London?’”
Clawson’s home had a balcony with a picturesque view – the perfect place to while away an afternoon, only sometimes hampered by kids on school trips, who’d notice Clawson and start shouting to get her attention.
As well as nosy tourists, there were a few other logistical elements to living in the Tower of London.
Clawson realized she had to time her evening returns to the Tower before or after the Ceremony of the Keys – a 700-year-old tradition that plays out every night at 9:30 p.m. forming part of the ceremonial “locking up” of the Tower for the night – otherwise she’d be locked out for 30 minutes.
Clawson also figured out the best routes around the Tower to avoid “getting stuck behind loads of tourists.”
And she realized that typing in “Tower of London” into food delivery apps would result in her takeaway pizza never showing up. Sure, she was living in one of London’s most famous landmarks, but delivery drivers never seemed to be able to find it – or they just didn’t believe anyone lived there. Clawson started getting deliveries to the Starbucks across the road instead.
Clawson also started regularly hosting friends in the Tower. Guests were permitted to stay over, and Clawson could host parties – she’d usually opt for the Tower’s onsite residents’ pub, called The Keys, as the venue.
The Keys has two areas – one is more formal, and requires black tie attire. The other side’s “like any other village pub,” as Clawson puts it. Think cozy surroundings and plenty of beer, but only open to Tower residents and their friends and family.
“It was just really chilled out,” says Clawson.
Unsurprisingly, Clawson’s college classmates loved visiting. “Except, obviously, I’d have to tell them, ‘Hey, if you don’t leave by midnight, then you’re locked in here until the morning.’”
The community atmosphere of the Tower quickly became one of Clawson’s favorite parts of living there. She’d grown up in a small town in Lincolnshire, northeast of London, and appreciated how the Tower of London felt like “a village” in the middle of the busy capital city.
The Tower spans 12 acres of the city, a maze of cobbled streets and imposing stone buildings, with London skyscrapers in the distance, poking out behind the Tower’s medieval buildings.
Tower residents would come together for drinks and catch-ups in the evenings, and to enjoy events like the annual dress up Halloween party.
Clawson always felt comfortable wandering the Tower – and tried not to let rumors of potential ghostly inhabitants play on her mind.
“Some days you can be walking around and you feel completely fine, and at ease. And then there are other times where you feel like, when you walk around, somebody’s watching you,” she says.
“I do believe in the supernatural and the paranormal and things like that. And I think if there was ever going to be a place where there was a ghost, it would definitely be the Tower.”
“As more and more people got interested, the more videos I did, the different kinds of videos I did,” she says.
From summing up the Tower’s ghost stories in bitesize videos to house tours to fun history lessons, Clawson’s videos provide a fascinating insight into an often unseen side of the Tower.
She’d directly respond to commentators’ requests too – if someone asked her a specific question about life in the Tower, Clawson would make a video response.
“It was very much just ‘What do I want to share with the world this week? What do I want to tell people? What do I want people to know?’” she says.
Around this time, Clawson also started jotting down ideas for a novel – a modern day romance about a woman who lived in the Tower of London.
The story wasn’t autobiographical, but there were aspects, beyond the setting, lifted directly from her life. Clawson decided her main character would fall in love with a Royal Guard – a British military soldier posted at one of the royal residences. Her own boyfriend is also a Royal Guard who, by coincidence, often works at the Tower of London.
“I met him online, but a lot of his job was inside the Tower,” explains Clawson. There was a shorthand between the two of them right away.
“It was kind of this funny conversation of, ‘Hey, like, you’re in my house.’”
Clawson fed all these experiences into her novel and started writing in earnest, discovering plenty of atmospheric writing spots in and around her historic home.
“I would write in my bedroom,” she recalls. “And then there’s cafes that overlook the Tower outside. So I would often go and sit there and look out on it from the outside looking in.”
Clawson’s novel, “Falling Hard for the Royal Guard,” was published in spring 2023 in the UK and the US via Harper Collins. A second novel, “Love at First Knight” – which also has a Tower of London backdrop – is in the works and set to publish next year.
Saying farewell to the Tower
This summer, Clawson’s father left his job as a Yeoman Warder. He told his daughter that he felt as though he’d reached “the pinnacle of his career” and the passing of the late Queen Elizabeth II was the end of an era and the right time to move on.
“He worked for the Queen for 30 years in the military, and then was able to guard her in her final moments,” says Clawson. Before leaving, Clawson’s father worked at the Queen’s official lying in state, the Queen’s funeral and the coronation of King Charles III.
In July 2023 Clawson and her father packed up their home in the Tower of London and moved out for good. Since then, Clawson says adjusting to life outside the Tower has “been very hard.”
She misses the excitement of waking up to stone turrets that have witnessed years of history, but most of all, she misses the other residents.
“They very much became my family and my friends,” she says. “They really got me to the place that I am today.”
She often reflects on “how all of the people that lived in the Tower had very similar but incredibly different lives to get them to that point.”
It was her interactions with the other residents that taught Clawson that “everybody’s got a story to tell.”
Right now, Clawson’s figuring out what comes next. She plans to continue sharing tales from the Tower on her social media, while also expanding to spotlight other UK landmarks and highlight other tales from British history.
“I’d love to take this different approach and kind of build outwards from what I’ve achieved living in the Tower – showing my followers and the world that these are these other amazing things that are in Great Britain that not very many people know about,” says Clawson.
She’s also keen to continue novel writing and would love to turn one of her books into a movie one day, creating a “British rom-com that’s completely filled with all of this British history” with the Tower as the spectacular backdrop.
Whatever comes next, Clawson says she’ll always be grateful for the three years she spent in the Tower of London.
“I always can say that I have lived there. And obviously, with my book and everything, it’s written in black and white that this was my life, and this was this period of time and it’s there on paper, that I’ll be able to share with my children and my grandchildren.”
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