Home » Unlocking the Secrets of Dover Castle: A Journey From Medieval History to WWII Secret Base

Unlocking the Secrets of Dover Castle: A Journey From Medieval History to WWII Secret Base

by Paola Bertoni
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Dover Castle is one of the most iconic and historically significant landmarks in the United Kingdom. Located in Dover, Kent, this magnificent castle is on top of the famous White Cliffs, overlooking the English Channel. The castle has a rich history that dates back to the 11th century and has served as a crucial defence point for the country during times of war. Today, the castle is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the UK and is part of English heritage, drawing millions of visitors every year. Thanks to its exciting exhibits and regular events, it is also a perfect destination for an amazing day out with children, as you can discover in this article.

Dover Castle: the Defence of England from Romans and Saxons to the WWII

Dover Castle occupies a strategic position over the Strait of Dover, the shortest sea crossing between England and continental Europe. From medieval times to WWII, Dover Castle played a crucial role in the defense of England, reflecting its enduring strategic importance.

The site of Dover Castle was originally an Iron Age hillfort before the construction of the Medieval Castle. You can still see a Roman lighthouse and an Anglo-Saxon church here. Soon after the conquest in 1066, the Normans built a castle here, the core of the castle you can see today. King Henry II and his successors developed it.

The Great Tower, which stands as a symbol of medieval strength, remembers this period. Even under the Tudors, the castle remained vital. Henry VIII built artillery forts along the southeast coast in the 16th century, and even the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, visited the castle during a diplomatic visit.

Over the years, Dover Castle’s buildings, defences, and tunnels have been adapted to meet the changing demands of warfare. They allowed the garrison to move, plan, and live safely. During WWI, Dover Castle served as a Fire Command Post and a Port War Signal Station for coordinating coastal defences. The underground tunnel network during WWII became the centre for Operation Dynamo, the daring rescue of British and Allied troops from Dunkirk.

Dover Castle
Dover Castle

What’s On at Dover Castle

When you visit Dover Castle, there are several attractions that you must-see. This iconic English castle is rich in history, and it has a range of sights and experiences that will capture the attention of visitors of all ages and interests.

If you are interested in modern history, you can explore the Secret Wartime Tunnels and learn about the Dunkirk’s evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II. For those fascinated by medieval history, the Great Tower is a must-visit attraction where you can even meet King Henry II in person. Additionally, you can head to the Port War Signalling Station and try your hand at Morse Code, but there is much more to see!

The Secret Wartime Tunnels and the Underground Hospital

During World War II, Dover Castle served as a command centre, where military strategists planned the Dunkirk evacuation and an underground hospital that provided life-saving medical treatment. Today, you can explore the castle’s underground passages and discover its wartime secrets through two guided tours: the Underground Hospital and the Secret Wartime Tunnels.

The Underground Hospital

The Underground Hospital is a remarkable relic from the tumultuous days of the Second World War. The underground medical facility was strategically close to the existing network of tunnels in the cliffs but at a higher level. The complex followed a grid system, with longer communication tunnels linking shorter tunnels.

Within these tunnels, you can witness reception areas, wards, an operating theatre, kitchens, and storage spaces. The recreated rooms are based on historical photographs, showcasing the equipment and conditions of that era. Despite the challenging conditions, the medical unit operated here until the early 1950s.

Ben Bertoni beside the Underground Hospital sign at Dover Castle
My son beside the Underground Hospital sign at Dover Castle

The Secret Wartime Tunnels

The Secret Wartime Tunnels are equally fascinating. These underground passages have witnessed pivotal historical moments and served various roles over the years.

During World War II, the tunnels transformed into a vital headquarters, where military strategists orchestrated the evacuation of over 330,000 troops from Dunkirk. The rooms, dimly lit and filled with tension, buzzed with activity as officers communicated with ships, calculated timings, and made split-second decisions that would alter the course of history.

Here, you can also discover that in the 1960s, the tunnels were equipped to serve as a Regional Seat of Government in case of nuclear war. We learned that these tunnels were top secret until a few years ago! Today, they stand as a testament to the tension of the Cold War and offer a glimpse into the remarkable history of Dover Castle.

The WWI Fire Command Post and the Port War Signal Station

Over 10,000 soldiers were stationed at Dover Castle during World War I to protect the harbour and Straits of Dover. Its guns successfully brought down a German Zeppelin, and the Port War Signal Station protected the harbour while monitoring thousands of naval and merchant ship movements. The castle acted as a military headquarters, and its importance was paramount during the war.

Today, you can experience this critical period in the UK’s history through the recreated WWI Fire Command Post. The must-see sight provides insight into the castle’s wartime role, allowing you to learn how to communicate in Morse code and spot enemy or friendly ships. 

From the WWI Fire Command Post vantage point, you can enjoy a panoramic view across the Straits of Dover, while outside there is an authentic anti-aircraft gun, one of the few working examples left in the world. During select days (check out the events on the Dover Castle website), volunteers explain the castle’s artillery role.

During our visit to the WWI Fire Command Post, no volunteers were present, but the interactive exhibits more than made up for it. We really felt what it was like to work there during the war, and the scenic recreation is truly impressive. I totally recommend walking until the WWI Fire Command Post because it is a great experience for history enthusiasts and anyone interested in learning about the important roles that castles played in the past.

Henry II’s Great Tower and the Medieval Kitchens

The most impressive attractions of the Dover Caste is the Great Tower is a majestic structure dating back to the 12th century. It has been meticulously restored to its former glory and now features fascinating exhibits that showcase the castle’s rich history.

The Great Tower has six main rooms. Among them, there are the King’s Hall with the royal throne and Henry II’s personal room. In the basement, you’ll be back in time inside a replica medieval kitchen. Children totally love this part of the exhibit because they can see all the necessary tools and implements to maintain a Royal household. It offers a glimpse into the daily life of the castle’s residents during medieval times.

During our visit, we saw a delightful show for kids that brought history to life. King Henry II and his court made a grand appearance that my son really appreciated. It was a wonderful moment of respite after our engaging tour of the Secret Wartime Tunnels.

King Henry II's bedroom at Dover Castle
King Henry II’s bedroom at Dover Castle

The Battlement Walk and the Other Sights of Dover Castle

Dover Castle spreads over a large area and offers hours of exploration, in addition to the most famous attractions. One of the highlights of the castle is the Battlement Walk, which takes you along the impressive battlements and provides breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.

Walking along the battlements, you’ll feel like you’re stepping back to the medieval era when defenders guarded the castle walls, scanning the horizon for any signs of danger. This unique experience offers a fascinating perspective on the castle’s history and its role as a defensive stronghold. Unfortunately, when we visited the castle, it was a rainy day. We can only imagine how much better the experience would be on a sunny day!

The view from Dover Castle is always stunning, no matter what the weather. From the castle, you can enjoy panoramic views of the North Downs, the Kentish shoreline, and even catch a glimpse of the Western Heights and, on clear days, the shores of France.

For a jump into Dover’s oldest history, I recommend visiting the Roman Pharos, the oldest surviving lighthouse in the UK and one of the oldest in the world. It was once used to aid Roman navigation across the English Channel from France. The adjacent Anglo-Saxon Church of St Mary in Castro‘s bell tower was once part of this Roman lighthouse, and you can still see Roman tiles in the church’s architecture. The church is still in use today, adding to the charm and history of the place.

View from Dover Castle
View from Dover Castle

Dover Castle with Kids

Dover Castle is a perfect family destination because it boasts numerous areas that intrigue children, from the exciting journey through the furnished royal rooms of the Great Tower to the exciting WWI Fire Command Post. They are also free to climb on the artillery pieces placed in the outdoor areas of Dover Castle.

Many interactive exhibits are available, and on selected days, children can even meet costumed characters that bring the medieval court to life. My son got the opportunity to participate in a demonstration lesson in archery, learning the techniques used in the Middle Ages.

Everywhere, you will find installations that are both informative and entertaining. For example, the WWI Fire Command Post and the Port War Signal Station have clear and detailed explanations about Morse code and how to identify approaching enemies, fascinating even for the youngest children.

Although not explicitly designed for children, the Secret Wartime Tunnels and the Underground Hospital tours are pretty interesting for them. The guides are always willing to provide further explanations. I can guarantee they will answer any questions the little ones may have because my son asked them a lot of insights! However, the tunnels can be quite dark, so if your child is easily impressionable, you may want to avoid this part of the tour.

Ben Bertoni on an artillery piece at Dover Castle
My son on an artillery piece at Dover Castle

Useful Information for Visiting Dover Castle

Dover Castle is a popular tourist attraction that can get very busy, especially during peak season. To avoid long queues, it’s a good idea to plan your visit ahead of time and book your tickets in advance. However, you will still have to queue to visit the underground tunnels.

It’s important to wear comfortable shoes and dress for the weather, as there is a lot of walking involved when visiting Dover Castle. Make sure to wear water-resistant shoes and bring a jacket and an umbrella. While we were queuing for the Secret Underground Tunnels, it started raining and drizzling despite being a sunny day. The staff had only a few umbrellas to lend to visitors. We were lucky that we were first in the queue, so we could take shelter under a small roof. However, British tourists were better organized than us, with foldable raincoats and umbrellas!

Inside Dover Castle, there is a lovely restaurant that offers a good choice of food at a reasonable price, as well as many picnic areas. We decided to eat inside because it started drizzling around lunchtime.

Tickets and Opening Time

English Heritage manages Dover Castle, so you won’t pay for your ticket if you are a member. I highly recommend becoming a member if you plan to visit multiple venues. During my road trip in England, my son and I visited many castles and mansions that were part of English Heritage.

I purchased a membership because I frequently travel to England and visit historical places. Additionally, being a member allows free parking in many places. If you’re planning a short trip, you can buy a special English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass from home before your trip.

If you are planning to visit Dover Castle and prefer to purchase a single ticket, you can get a discount by booking in advance. However, you can still buy a ticket when you arrive. The tickets are valid all day, so you can visit anytime and stay as long as you like within the opening hours.

When travelling, I usually purchase tickets online from resellers like GetYourGuide to guarantee my entrance and have all my tickets in one app. This is a good idea especially during high season, when the most popular destinations like Dover Castle can be quite busy. Although it may cost a small commission, the convenience is worth the cost.

How to Get to Dover Castle

We reached Dover Castle by car just after arriving in England by ferry. The Castle was one of our must-sees, and it is pretty close to the port, making it a convenient stop for anyone in the area.

Thanks to the Eurotunnel and ferry terminal, Dover is well connected to Kent and the rest of England. However, there can sometimes be delays at the Port of Dover. For this reason, we missed out on seeing Dover Castle during our previous trip, so be flexible with your plans.

To find the best route to Dover Castle, I recommend using Google Maps or your Sat Nav and entering the postcode CT16 1HU. Once you arrive, there is a big free on-site car park.

If you prefer public transport, you can take advantage of the 20% off your ticket for the car-free travel discount. The train services operated by Southeastern will take you to Dover Priory station. From there, you can walk one mile uphill to the Castle or take the 81 bus from the station.

Dover Castle
Castle Hill Road
Dover CT16 1HU

In conclusion, Dover Castle is the perfect destination for anyone interested in history, architecture, and breathtaking views. With so much to see and do, it’s easy to spend an entire day with your family exploring the Castle has to offer. For us, it was an amazing adventure, and we will definetely return next time we go to the UK by car. Feel free to share your experience at Dover Castle in the comments.

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