The Dover Castle guide
Arguably the most important fortress ever built in Britain – and certainly the most strategically placed. Dover is one of the historic Cinque Ports, the five-pronged network of strongholds along the south-east coast established in the 11th century as a barrier against potential invasion – and the castle is its sturdy centerpiece. Although its hill-top location had been noted long before. The castle is still home to a Roman lighthouse, while there is evidence that an Iron Age fort also occupied the site.
Where: On top of the famous White Cliffs, where it keeps an eye on the narrowest stretch of the English Channel. Just 26 miles separate Dover from Calais, and you can easily make out France from the castle on a clear day – a country that, for much of the last millennium, was enemy turf. We can see you sneaking over, Jean-Luc...
Why go? Because, if you fancy a day out where you can throw yourself into the Britain of yore, the castle covers roughly 2000 years of our past. While the Roman lighthouse harks back to the time of togas and sandals, the castle compound owes much of its shape to William The Conqueror, who bolstered the Saxon structure he ‘inherited’ in his takeover of England in 1066. The key buildings – the ones that scream ‘This is a medieval fortress. Don’t mess with us’ – are the handiwork of 12th century king Henry II, who used Dover as one of his main bases. And Henry VIII also had a hand in the castle’s development, shoring up the defences, changing the locks and rethinking the wallpaper (possibly) after falling out with the rest of Europe during his turbulent reign.
Then there is the network of tunnels, driven into the porous chalk of the cliff in the late 18th century, designed to provide accommodation for troops as the castle kept its watchful glare pointed towards Napoleon over the water. And it was a case of ‘same problem, different accent’ in the Second World War, as the passageways were converted into a hidden control point for military operations in the Channel – the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 was coordinated from within the rock. In fact, so cleverly concealed were the tunnels that they were even earmarked as a centre of government in the event of a Cold War nuclear strike – and weren’t decommissioned until 1984.
Random fact: The castle has stood in for the Tower Of London on the silver screen on several occasions – thanks largely to the first-glance similarities between the central Great Tower and the White Tower in the capital. Compare the photo of the Great Tower at the bottom of this piece with the opening seconds of this clip from last year’s Tudor bodice-ripper The Other Boleyn Girl. The building in the background as Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) comes out to have her head lopped off – notice any similarities?
The best: The ‘secret’ tunnels, which house all manner of wartime paraphernalia – operating theatres, a kitchen, an officers’ mess, sleeping quarters, strategy rooms, offices and telephone exchanges. While none of the contents are the originals, they – along with the dramatic conversations piped into each dimly-lit room – give the visitor a taste of the conflict, and an eerie sensation of having stepped back into the Forties.
Downside: The aforementioned Great Tower which, although the castle’s big, turreted poster structure, is currently closed to the public. It is slated to reopen on August 1st, ‘restored’ to its 12th century appearance and set to hold a £2million bells-and-whistles (or drapes-and-thronerooms) exhibition on the man who built it, Henry II.
When to go: June is a good month if your interest is in a more notorious Henry. This year is the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s coronation, and every weekend in June will witness an event dedicated to the wife-decapitating, Pope-angering Bluff King Hal. The Terrors Of Tudor England (June 13-14) should grab the attention of young historians.
How to get there: There are direct trains to Dover from London’s Charing Cross and Victoria stations. High-speed services from St Pancras are due to start in December
More information: Tickets for the castle cost £10 for adults, £5 for children and £25 for families – and cover the whole site (minus the Great Tower at present), including a tour of the wartime tunnels (01304 211067) www.english-heritage.org.uk/dovercastle).