High on a hill above the English Channel, Dover Castle has watched over this strategic waterway for centuries. Henry II built the present castle in the 12th century, but there have been fortifications here for more than 2,000 years, and it’s easy to see why. No vessel would ever sail past unnoticed.
I’ve often driven beneath Dover Castle’s Great Keep and barrack buildings, its garrison church and lofty ramparts, en route to the ferry port and France, and every time, I promise myself the same thing … one of these days, I’ll stop and take a closer look.
And now here I am, taking time out in Dover and really glad I made the effort. Not just for Dover Castle, ably looked after for the nation by English Heritage, but also for the wider town too. Britain’s oldest and busiest port is the historic heart of an enchanting stretch of coastline known as White Cliffs Country which also includes Sandwich and Deal.
But first that stupendous castle, which has so often played a major role in our nation’s history. A garrison from 1066 right up until 1958, its Great Tower was erected for Henry II at the height of his empire building. Henry VIII liked to entertain here too.
But Silver Travellers may more readily associate Dover Castle with Operation Dynamo, code name for the Dunkirk Evacuation of May 1940, which was planned in the Secret Wartime Tunnels in the chalk cliffs beneath the castle.
And there’s no better time to pay a visit. A new Christopher Nolan movie – Dunkirk, what else? – opens in cinemas on 21 July starring Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy. So I really enjoyed doing a bit of pre-movie homework on the tunnels tour which vividly recreates the tense atmosphere of that unique and awe-inspiring event. Naval ships set out to repatriate stranded soldiers, hoping to bring back some 45,000 men. But thanks to a flotilla of small private craft that joined them, more than 338,000 British and Allied soldiers were successfully landed on the Kent coast between 26 May and 4 June.
The whole story is humbling but I’m particularly moved by the black-and-white photo of German leaders standing on the French coast looking – wistfully, one assumes – to England just weeks after Operation Dynamo. Tunnel visits last 45 minutes and depart three times an hour, combining multi-media presentations with guided tour. The surface is uneven in places but is accessible to wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
I also enjoyed the adjacent Underground Hospital, where a 20-min tour follows the progress of a wounded pilot with added atmosphere from flickering lights and the sound of muffled explosions.
There are medieval tunnels too elsewhere in the castle precincts, dug during the siege of 1216. England’s oldest lighthouse, built by the Romans, stands next to the garrison church, and the magnificent Great Tower is decked out in the period of Henry II with brightly coloured hangings. If you’ve got the energy, I recommend taking the broad spiral staircase to the roof terrace of the Great Tower for panoramic views of the castle, town and port (staircase access only).
There’s always something going on at Dover Castle including a lot of themed events which are particularly suitable for three-generation families. Easter weekend, for instance, saw a medieval festival whilst late May BH weekend brings a World War II event so check the website before visiting.
You need at least three hours to tour the Castle at leisure, but don’t be tempted to miss out on Dover Museum. This delightful free attraction in Market Street is located behind the Visitor Information Centre and includes an absolute gem that must surely be one of Kent’s best-kept secrets. In the subdued lighting of the Bronze Age Boat Gallery, you’ll find no less than the world’s oldest boat!
Carved out of local oak some 3500 years ago and reliably carbon-dated, this substantial craft is older than Moses and Tutankhamun. It was discovered during excavation work on the sea front in 1992 and has been painstakingly preserved with help from the Mary Rose Trust. Read the story boards; watch archive film of the excavation; and see a modern-replica alongside the 31-foot section of the original vessel. Utterly amazing for all ages.
No visit to Dover would be complete without a walk on the top of the White Cliffs, immortalised in Dame Vera Lynn’s wartime song and now managed by the National Trust whose visitor centre perches on the cliff top directly above the port. Enjoy a seagull’s eye view of the harbour; walk the heathland trails; and just soak up those Channel views as you head towards South Foreland lighthouse.
You really need a couple of days to do justice to Dover, so I stayed over in a lovely barn conversion at www.abbeyfarmholidays.co.uk, just a short drive inland in the grounds of ruined St Radigund’s Abbey. And on the basis that self-catering doesn’t need to involve anything more culinary than breakfast, I headed down to Marine Parade for dinner. This quiet promenade proved a revelation in itself to someone who normally sees only the backs of its elegant seafront mansions from the port access road.
Here I enjoyed delicious fresh fish – even fresh local samphire – at Hythe Bay Dover, the second restaurant opening for a local group that started out in nearby Hythe and now has a third branch in Deal. As the light faded, I watched the ferries come in and out of harbour and above them, the silhouette of Dover Castle, floodlit against the night sky. So glad I didn’t rush through for once!