Melinda and I thought of “Uncle” Cedric and “Auntie” Beryl Ramshall often as we watched on TV as the world bade farewell to Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning monarch in British history.
Yeoman of the Guard, in their bright red state uniforms, stood vigil at her coffin, draped in the royal standard and topped with her crown, orb, scepter and a spray of flowers from her son, the new King Charles III.
Uncle Cedric was a yeoman warder, better known as a Beefeater, at the Tower of London, that somber 11th century stone bastion and onetime royal prison that houses the Crown Jewels.
We met the Ramshalls in 1978. Melinda was in a group he guided around the Tower, begun by William the Conqueror 900 years before my then fiancée’s visit.
She’d spent six weeks on a study abroad program in Austria. We were to rendezvous afterwards in London and tour the UK for a couple of weeks.
Melinda arrived first and hopped the Tube to the Tower. Then a 28-year-old Paducah Sun feature writer, I met her back at our hotel after flying over from Chicago.
“I’ve arranged an interview for you tomorrow with a Beefeater,” my bride-to-be beamed. “Right,” I replied skeptically.
After all, why would one of only 37 ceremonial guardians of Her (then) Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, the Tower of London, make time for a reporter from a small-town western Kentucky newspaper he’d never heard of.
So how did Melinda do it?
While she minored in German at Murray State — hence her Austrian stint — she was an English and history major. After her tour, she told Mr. Ramshall how impressed she was with his commentary on the Tower, especially when he took everybody to the Norman Chapel of St. John the Evangelist and explained that Henry VIII commanded that 1,000 candles be lit in honor of his mother while she lay in state.
When Melinda called the English queen by name, Elizabeth of York, Mr. Ramshall’s face brightened. “You obviously know your English history,” he complimented her.
The conversation that followed led to the interview. But there was a caveat: he’d have to meet me first and see how things went from there.
I apparently met with his approval. Not only did I get a story, Melinda and I got an invitation to return as his guest for the Ceremony of the Keys, the ritual closing of the Tower every night at 9:53 PM sharp. The ceremony began in the 14th century and has continued on time every night — save one during the Blitz when a bomb blast knocked the Beefeaters flat, causing a slight delay.
After our first visit, we never had to queue or buy a ticket for the Tower. “We’re here to see Mr. Ramshall,” we’d announce at the gate. In we went.
If he wasn’t guiding tours, he’d personally show us around — including a back entrance to the Jewel House.
The Ramshalls invited us for supper at their flat in a Tower casemate. The loo window was an arrow slit.
We’d come bearing gifts. Besides the prosaic bottle of wine, we presented him with a quart of Jack Daniels Black Label and a Kentucky colonelcy. We provided Beryl with commemorative spoons for her collection.
A beer man, Mr. Ramshall found the Tennessee sour mash a tad stout for his taste. But he loved being “promoted” to Kentucky colonel. “Now I’m the same rank as my old regimental commander,” grinned the former Royal Artillery warrant officer.
He retired in 1992, and the couple moved to Hythe on the English Channel. He enjoyed tending the flowers in their apartment house garden. He was notably proud of the goldenrod. “The KEN-tucky state flower,” he declared.
Berry IV, our first and only offspring, was born in March, 1993. We first took him to Europe and the UK in June, 1994.
The Ramshalls didn’t have children, but they loved kids. They doted on Berry and insisted he call them Uncle Cedric and Auntie Beryl.
Mr. Ramshall was a tough-as-nails warrant officer (WO). “Come on lads, it’s only pain,” he’d urge his troops struggling through the rigors of Army training. (When they were homesick, he’d fry them orange marmalade sandwiches.)
Mr. Ramshall was known to his fellow yeoman warders as “the Paddington Bear Beefeater.” Paddington — who appeared with the queen in a Platinum Jubilee video that went viral — is the British version of the teddy bear. Named for a London railway station, the little bruin decked in a black hat (with a marmalade sandwich inside) has been the subject of many children’s books. One is about the time he visited the Beefeaters at the tower.
Uncle Cedric treasured a letter from a child addressed to “the Paddington Bear Beefeater.”
He had his own stuffed Paddington and Paddington’s Aunt Lucy. He got a kick out of dressing up as Paddington for kids.
We last saw Uncle Cedric shortly before he died in August, 2011. Our final visit with Auntie Beryl was in 2014, the year she died.
Forty-four years after my interview with Yeoman Warder Ramshall, I still remember my first question. “What are the requirements for becoming a Beefeater?”
Officially, Beefeaters must be veterans who served at least 22 years on active duty and made warrant officer or its equivalent (or staff sergeant in rare instances). They also had to have earned Long Service and Good Conduct medals, he explained.
But unofficially, and most importantly, he added, a Beefeater must have “presence.”
I asked for an explanation. “I could tell you that presence is bearing and dignity and aloofness and all that,” he said. “But presence is never getting your knickers in a twist.”