Sitting atop the famous white cliffs of Dover since the 12th century, overlooking the historic port, is the formidable Dover Castle. It is here that L and I ventured off to on cool and rainy Sunday morning in October for a little day trip. Besides being on my list of castles to see in England we knew there were also some Secret Wartime Tunnels that were used in WWII for Operation Dynamo (the evacuation of British and Allied troops from Dunkirk) that we wanted to explore. This castle really seemed to have it all, and those were just the things we knew about before we arrived. On our visit we discovered even more treasures!
Although the castle was started in 1066 the history of this location goes back about a 1000 years before that when the Iron Age inhabitants built a fort here. Along came the Romans who then erected a pharos, or lighthouse, inside their fort in about 125AD. They built a second lighthouse across the Dover harbour but only the one on the grounds at Dover Castle remains. The lighthouse is octagonal in shape and built in five layers out of ragstone and flint with brick archways. The first four layers were from the Romans and the top layer was added around 1430 to act as the bell tower for the St Mary in Castro church beside it. We were pretty impressed at the condition of the lighthouse as it is, after all, almost 2000 years old! Inside it is hollow and you can go in and look around.
After the Romans moved out the Saxons moved in and around 1000 AD they constructed the church of St Mary in Castro, which was later remodeled in the Victorian period. The church was used by the garrison of Dover Castle and held sacred relics during medieval times. The building was restored in 1582 but then fell into decay again in the 17th century and was little more than a crumbling shell by the 18th century. After being used as a coal store the church was finally restored in 1862 and today the interior includes a mosaic alter and tiled floors.
Moving on from the church and the lighthouse you can visit the heart of the fortress- the Great Tower. Begun in 1066, but mainly a product of King Henry II’s expansion in 1170, the Great Tower stands 25 m (183 ft) at its tallest with walls as thick as 6.5m (21ft) in places. It was seen as a symbol of “kingly power and authority” as it guarded the gateway to the realm. It was used for royal ceremony and to house King Henry II’s traveling court but the most important use was as a military post as the castle was garrisoned uninterruptedly from 1066 until 1958. From 1740 through 1945 the castle’s defenses have been updated in response to every European war involving Britain.
The interior of the Great Tower, or keep, has been renovated but has been set to look like it would have when the castle was in operation and it was SO neat! We spent quite a long time wandering through rooms set up to look like cooking and storage rooms, great dining halls, long damp passageways between rooms that overlooked the grounds, and even cozy bedchambers that had roaring fires going in their fireplaces. That was likely the biggest surprise for us and as we were walking through we thought we could smell smoke and then upon entering one of those bedchambers we saw why. What a treat! It was so well done I felt like I could almost imagine myself back in those times.
Despite it being so nice and toasty inside we couldn’t stay inside when there were views of Dover to be had from the top of the castle. So out we went as the wind blew and the rain came down. Yeah, we didn’t stay out there too long! But even with the fog and dreary weather the view was still incredible.
After our tour of the Great Tower we decided it was time for some lunch so we headed down to the cafe for a traditional Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding. And it was delicious! Even the carrots were all right and I really don’t like carrots. We also saw that they had cream tea so made a mental note to come back at tea time to enjoy that too. Can’t pass up scones, clotted cream, and raspberry jam now can we? Well I can’t anyway.
But before tea we had some Secret Wartime Tunnels to visit so that’s where we headed after lunch. They were so very different than this medieval castle and so interesting as well. They even made them smell like the roast dinner we had just eaten!
To read about the Secret Wartime Tunnels at Dover Castle, click here.