Blighty! Back in Dover

It was a 5am start for us this morning (French time, so 4am UK time). Check-in at Calais was straightforward. The port was quiet and as usual these days, the customs officers were only concerned with checking all available hiding places for migrants – in the shower, in the wardrobe, under the seats…. There was just one obvious place that they didn’t look:

“You could get a Maasai warrior in there……” said Mark, “he’d have to cut his spear down though”. Mark has a very fertile imagination when he’s sleep deprived….

We already have a “Norway locker” which is the designated storage space for the food mountain we’ll be taking with us next time we head over to Scandinavia (provision of “Norway storage” was an important factor when choosing a new van; our “Norway locker” is the original gas locker, freed up by having an underslung lpg tank fitted). I suspect that the tall thin locker (which contains the spare toilet canister, bucket, watering can, hose pipe, toilet fluid etc) may now be officially named the “Maasai Warrior locker”.

After a smooth crossing, we parked up in Dover and had a couple of hours to have showers, breakfast etc before the castle opened at 10am.

We’ve never visited Dover Castle before; we’ve considered it but it’s not a minor visitor attraction that you’d pop into for an hour before a ferry. It’s managed by English Heritage and admission is normally £20 each (plus giftaid if required); we’re members this year so this was the time to visit. As we discovered, you can easily spend the full day in there, there’s so much to see. We thought £20 was a very fair price (those who know us well may now be spluttering… 😀)

The oldest building within Dover Castle is the remains of a Roman lighthouse dating back to around 120 AD. There was another one on the other side of the harbour and together, they would have guided ships in to port.

The building next to the lighthouse is the Church of St Mary in Castro. English Heritage have the following to say about it:

This church, built over 1000 years ago, is the finest late-Saxon building standing in Kent.

It’s certainly a fine building, but having read about the renovations carried out in the 19th century (below), we really weren’t sure which were the 1000 year old parts we were supposed to be looking at:

There was some kind of fortification on the site of the castle when the Normans arrived in 1066, but this was destroyed and the medieval buildings you can see today are the work of Henry II. He was, of course, the father of Richard the Lionheart (who built Château Gaillard, which we visited on Sunday) and King John. Initially, Dover Castle was more of a palace, welcoming important visitors (royalty, noble and/or very rich pilgrims en route to Canterbury etc) on their arrival in England. After John lost the ancestral lands in Normandy in 1204, though, Dover was on the front line and took on an important defensive role.

The inside of the keep is presented as it would have been back in the times of Henry, Richard and John, complete with wall hangings and the like. The style is very similar to what we saw at Falaise Castle (old post here), the birthplace of William the Conqueror – except that at Falaise they showed you a bare castle and added the furnishings virtually using an ipad.

One thing we spotted on the table in front of the fire in the photo above is that it appears that Henry II or one of his sons owned a complete set of Lewis chessmen ?! Who’d have guessed 😮

(The Lewis chessmen are 12th century walrus ivory chess pieces discovered on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in 1831).

Of course Henry / Richard / John may well have had similar ivory chess sets….. We found it entertaining, though, that English Heritage seem to have thought that if they popped down to the British Museum shop and picked up a replica set of Lewis chessmen, we wouldn’t notice? Thankfully, none of the brightly-painted furniture appeared to have come from Ikea.

Moving on to the next key stage of the castle’s history, we were very disappointed – nay, gutted – to discover that the medieval tunnels were closed due to the recent heavy rain.

Basically, when bad King John (boooo!) fell out with the barons, he was strong-armed into agreeing to Magna Carta in 1215. Soon after, he seemed to have forgotten all about it (rights? what rights?), so some of the barons helpfully invited the prince of France to invade. This he did in 1216, resulting in Dover Castle being placed under siege twice (once on the way in, and once when the French were on the way back out after John’s death solved much of the problem in the eyes of the rebels).

The brilliant thing here is that the siege of Dover Castle by the French is apparently the only example, ever, of a counter-tunnel being dug. During the siege the English defenders actually tunneled out to attack the French. We bet that came as a surprise to the attackers… 🙄 Zut alors!

Moving swiftly on to the Napoleonic Wars….. the castle defences were extensively remodelled and a complex of tunnels dug below the castle – the only underground barracks ever built in Britain, housing up to 2000 men.

The tunnels weren’t actively used in WW1, but there was some good information about the first anti-aircraft guns… not very effective but good for civilian morale….

The Napoleonic tunnels were used, and new levels of tunnels dug, during WW2. We did both of the tours into the tunnels (no photos were allowed on either tour).

The first was into the highest tunnels, dug in just 5 months to create an underground hospital, complete with operating theatres.

Two lower levels (we could visit one on the second tour), incorporating the Napoleonic War tunnels, became a military command centre. The 1940 Dunkirk evacuation (“Operation Dynamo”) was directed from here. We saw a very well thought-through presentation of the background to the evacuation, with original newsreels and CGI projected onto tunnel walls, together with some of the artefacts left over from that time – plotting tables, the telephone exchange etc.

Dover was the most heavily bombed / shelled town in England during WW2, with 2226 shells fired from guns placed along the French coast falling on the town. The aim was to destroy the harbour and railway line (both to the Western side of town – which, we were told, is why that side of town has no imposing old buildings left….). Not a single shell fell on Dover Castle (on the Eastern end of town); possibly it was protected so as to be of use to Hitler after the invasion that never happened? Unbeknown to the Germans, what is now the P&O terminal in front of the castle housed submarine pens…. If they’d known that, perhaps the castle wouldn’t have got away unscathed after all….

The statue below commemorates Sir Bertram Home Ramsey. As well as running Operation Dynamo (the Dunkirk evacuation) from the tunnels below Dover Castle in 1940, he was commander in chief of Operation Neptune (the naval side of Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings) in 1944. That’s some resumé, as the Americans would say….

The story of Dover Castle doesn’t even end there… In the 1960s the tunnels were set up as one of the 12 Cold War “Regional Seats of Government” from which the country would be run in the event of nuclear attack…..

Overall, we thought that Dover Castle was fantastic. We’re fully intending to go back next time we’re in Dover to check out those medieval tunnels. We’ll probably stay overnight somewhere within striking distance then visit the medieval tunnels and Dover Museum (which houses the World’s oldest known seafaring boat, dating back to the bronze age – we’d seen this on TV a long time ago but had forgotten about it until we saw a brown sign in Dover today), before heading down to the docks for an evening ferry….

It’s a good thing, we’ve found, to keep adding to plans for future trips as you go along; that way there’s always plenty to be looking forward to 😎😎😎


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