***Important note: as I researched for this blog to rewrite it, I found that the castle is currently open to the public; however, the underground secret wartime tunnels are temporarily closed due to Covid, and the underground medieval tunnels are currently closed due to “conservation work”. It is best to continuously check the website https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/dover-castle/ for when they’ll reopen. ***
Located on the edge of the land mass known as England sits a city famous for not only its magnificent white cliffs, but also for its castle and underground bunkers used during the Big War. We toured Dover because that is where our cruise ship originally docked and started out from; nonetheless, I think it’s well worth a trip regardless of your reason for visiting England.
When people (especially Americans) think of England, they typically automatically and exclusively think of London (maybe Stonehenge), and that’s about it. There is much more to this country — Dover is less than a 2-hour drive from London (approx. 1.45 hours) with a lot of history, including a castle with underground bunkers used during various wars and conflicts. This city pushes up right up against the famed English Channel, and the French coast is only 26 miles away. It’s said that on clear days you can see the outline of France (we couldn’t 😥).
When we arrived in Dover at the start of our cruise, we had zero time to explore the town, castle, tunnels, or do literally anything that didn’t involve racing to the ship. Plus, we had just flown 10.5 hours, so we weren’t exactly in a cheerful, touristy mood. In contrast, when the ship docked at the end of the first part of the cruise (we took a back-to-back: everyone who wasn’t staying for the 2nd part disembarked, and those coming on for the 2nd part boarded), we jumped at the downtime to do some explorin’. Sadly, we didn’t have much time to discover more of Dover, so this blog will be almost exclusively about the castle and its underground tunnels.
The White Cliffs
As for Dover’s other main draw, the famous White Cliffs, they really are a sight to behold. Stretching for 8 miles (13km) along the Strait of Dover, the cliffs owe their striking appearance to a composition of chalk with flashes of black flint scattered throughout. The highest of the cliffs reaches a whopping 350 feet (110m). The cliffs are located where Great Britain is closest to continental Europe, so it’s said you can view the cliffs from France on a clear day.
The cliffs are well known across many genres, most notably referenced in Shakespeare’s King Lear. They’ve made appearances in numerous poems, novels, songs, and even a sea shanty.
We took a bus from the port to downtown Dover, and from there it was relatively easy finding our way to Dover Castle. Atop a giant hill, it cannot be missed. It’s an 11th century castle, which was once dubbed “The Key to England” due to its strategic location right next to the English Channel (fun fact: it’s routinely named the largest castle in England, although supporters of Windsor Castle disagree). King Henry II began construction in the 1180’s and it has seen action from numerous wars and battles throughout history. These include the First Barons’ War (1216), the English Civil War (1642), the Napoleonic Wars (1803), the War of 1812, and finally, WWII. It was a HUGE stronghold for England during WWII because of the secret tunnels located inside the ground, underneath the castle. They were greatly damaged during WWII but were restored afterwards.
To tour the castle, it costs 11.75€ per adult with a “donation” ($16.33 USD) and 10.65€ per adult without a “donation” ($14.80 USD). Children (aged 5-17) are 7.05€ ($9.80 USD) per ticket with “donation” and 6.40€ ($8.90 USD) without a “donation”. Members enter for free. The castle is open from 10am to 6pm. This castle is also a magnet for school children’s groups, and quite a few were visiting when we went. There may be guided tours of the castle, but we didn’t use them. Instead, we walked freely and were able to roam the various areas with ease.
There is much to see and do at Dover Castle, including exploring the Great Tower and the “Court of Henry II”; visiting the WWI Fire Command Post, where you can learn how the castle was designated as a military fortress/headquarters during the 1st World War; roam the castle grounds, check out the castle’s “curtain wall” and hidden galleries and passageways; explore the castle’s defense weaponry, including a “medieval trebuchet to a Napoleonic cannon and 2nd World War guns” (a trebuchet is similar to a catapult and used for “hurling heavy stones to smash castle and city walls”); admire “breathtaking costal views”, because as mentioned above, you can see the English Channel and France on clear days; meet “characters from history” on weekends until September 25th, who recreate castle livin’; visit the secret wartime tunnels and the Bunker Escape Room; explore the ancient medieval tunnels (different than the wartime tunnels and routinely closed due to conservation efforts – they are currently closed); and last, dine at The Great Tower Café, Naafi Restaurant, Secret Wartime Tunnels Tearoom, or the Ice Cream Parlor (all of these eateries have their own differing hours of operation, so best to check the website!).
Even though you can freely explore the castle, you must book a tour for the underground tunnels. It’s a very easy walk and you really don’t feel like you’re underground (so if you are claustrophobic, fear not). We went with a group of about 30, and we got to view the kitchen, hospital, command center, bunkers, and other areas. The curators of the castle have taken great care and time in recreating what life must have been like down in the tunnels during the Big War (WWII). They use “state-of-the-art special effects, dramatic projections, and real film footage to bring to life the dramatic rescue of the British Army from the beaches of Dunkirk”. You will also visit the Underground Hospital, equipped with all the bells and whistles that one would expect in a wartime hospital setup.
After the Siege of 1216, the tunnels were consistently used for defense and war purposes, as well as storage. However, more (complex) tunnels were needed as the times progressed. By the early 1800’s, there was a strong need for more tunnels due to the Napoleonic Wars, mainly for barracks, as more than 2000 troops were coming to Dover to defend the country against Little Man. They needed a lot of storage room for all these troops and their equipment. So, began even more construction into the pliable, chalky Dover cliffs. These tunnels were created almost 50 feet (15m) underground and the first troops were stationed there in 1803.
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, these tunnels were somewhat converted and then used by the Coast Blockade Service (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) to combat illegal smuggling. This was short-lived, as the headquarters moved closer to shore in 1827. After this, the tunnels were altogether abandoned until more than a century, where they were rediscovered in 1938 and repurposed for use during WWII.
During the Second World War, the tunnels were excavated and converted into an air-raid shelter, then later into a military command post and underground hospital. There are five different levels, and some parts of the tunnels underneath the castle are not even uncovered. The tour takes you through one of the main tunnels, known as Casemate, which was headquarters for the Dover Naval Command during WWII. In fact, Dover Castle and these tunnels were made famous by Operation Dynamo, known better as the “evacuation of Dunkirk” (and immortalized into a movie starring the dreamy Tom Hardy).
Aside from Casemate, there are four other known tunnels. On top is Annex, which was dug out in 1941 and used as a military dressing station where the wounded were evaluated and treated before being shipped out to inland hospitals. You can tour this tunnel as well, and I suggest that you do. Below that is Dumpy, built in 1943, whose original purpose was to be a regional government center if there was a nuclear attack on the UK during the Cold War. It is not usually open to the public (but can be accessed). The other two tunnels are also closed, known as Esplanade (another air-raid shelter) and Bastion (completely buried by rocks, but hopefully will be unearthed one day).
Arguably one of the coolest parts of the castle, it was a ton of fun visiting the medieval tunnels. They were originally built in the 1200’s, so it was a trip to walk through tunnels that were built over 800 years ago without modern-day engineering or technology. Construction on the tunnels first began during the Siege of 1216 (a failed siege on Dover Castle by the invading French prince, Louis “the Lion”, who unseated the English king, King John), and continued afterwards.
A main reason for the tunnels’ construction was a need to move the troops stationed in the fortress, whose job was to defend it, in silence and with protection. They needed a safe place for the garrison to plan, live, and sleep, and what better place than underground (especially in the early 11th century when none of the high-tech gadgets and weapons existed)?
They also used these tunnels to attack the French. Not only did they tunnel and build paths throughout the castle grounds so troops could move all over in silence, but they also tunneled outwards, towards the French. This was intended as a sneak attack of sorts, because the French were expecting the English to attack from the top of the castle walls or through the castle cannons and other various weapons. They were not expecting them to pop up from the ground like little medieval, ironclad moles.
After we explored the castle for a couple of hours, we headed back towards town down an exceedingly long, steep staircase. It’s a close walk from the castle, but I was tired, so I went back to the ship. My family meandered around for a bit more, and of course headed to the Kent police station so my stepfather Greg could perform his ritual of exchanging stories and patches with foreign police officers. There he met a nice police officer named Brian, who gladly exchanged patches.
They also attempted to visit the Roman Painted House, which, according to the White Cliffs Country website, was “built about AD 200 it formed part of a large mansion or official hotel for travelers crossing the English Channel”. The museum consists of five rooms of a Roman-built hotel, when Dover (then known as Dubris) was the main naval base and known as the “Gateway to Roman Britannia”. But alas, it was closed that day. Next, they ventured to the Dover Museum, only briefly touring it, and felt it was not worth the admission price (12€ for 3 people, or about $16.70).
I’m thoroughly convinced that Dover is a charming and wonderful medium-sized coastal English town. There is plenty to do, and if you’re ever in England, it’d be a shame to miss a chance to view the famed White Cliffs of Dover, or to visit a castle so steeped in history. I know if I ever take a trip back to London, a trip to Dover will be at the top of the list!