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Dover Castle

Dover Castle

ABOVE: Constable's Gateway, one of the two main visitor entrances to Dover Castle.

  • Note: Some parts of the Dover Castle (such as the Secret Wartime Tunnels) have been closed for public-health reasons during the coronavirus pandemic. Most of the castle remains open, although you may need to book timed tickets in advance. See the English Heritage: Dover Castle link below under "Visitor information" for current details.

Dover, in East Kent, is England's leading cruise and ferry port. Yet Dover's most conspicuous attraction predates the era of steamships and Super Seacats: It looms over the harbor from a site above the chalk cliffs, distracting the visitor's eye from the maritime terminals and outlet shops that have taken over the city's waterfront.

I'm talking, of course, about Dover Castle, a medieval fortress that has dominated the local skyline for more than 800 years.

If I were forced to use just one adjective to describe Dover Castle, I'd pick the word "impressive." It isn't just a castle; it's a massive complex of fortifications dating back to Roman times, when the Pharos (a lighthouse that's said to be the oldest structure in Britain) was built around 50 A.D. Next to the Pharos is a restored Saxon church dating to the 7th Century, which--with the Pharos--is open to visitors.

However, the castle's biggest attraction (both literally and figuratively) is the Great Keep, which was constructed between 1181 and 1187 for King Henry II, the British monarch who is perhaps best known for ordering the murder of Thomas ŗ Becket and fathering Richard the Lionheart. The massive keep is eight stories high, with walls of 17 to 22 feet (roughly 5 to 7 meters) in thickness.

Henry II's Keep

Dover Castle - Henry II's Keep

ABOVE: The yard of the Great Keep at Dover Castle.

As you walk up the hill to the Great Keep, you pass through the inner walls of the castle. When you emerge in the Keep Yard (see photo), you'll find several attractions that you can enjoy if you have time:

The 1216 Siege Experience. This 12-minute "sound and light presentation" chronicles the prolonged siege of Dover Castle by French troops, who had been asked to invade England by rebellious barons who wanted to dethrone the tyrannical King John.

The French Dauphin (later to become Louis XIII) gave up his attempts to conquer and hold England, in part because King John died and was succeeded by Henry III during the siege.

A Castle Fit for a King. When King VIII came for a brief stay at the castle in 1539, the preparations rivaled the excesses that are typical of a state visit by a world leader today.

Step inside the Keep to see a recreation of those preparations, which--among other things--required unpacking hundreds of trunks and arranging the king's own furniture.

The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment and Queen's Regiment Museum. Displays give an idea of Army life from 1572 through modern times.

If you have time for nothing else, walk through the Keep's rooms and climb up to the roof, where you'll enjoy a spectacular view of the castle grounds, the English Channel, and--on a clear day--the French Coast. (See photos below.)

Another option is a visit to the Medieval Tunnels, or casemates, that were built in the 12th Century and altered in the late 1700s to help defend against a possible invasion from France.

Secret World War II Tunnels

Henry II's Keep - View from roof - Dover Castle, England

ABOVE: View from the roof of Henry II's Keep at Dover Castle, with the English Channel in the background. The Secret WWII Tunnels extend inland from the cliffs overlooking the sea.

One of Dover Castle's most popular attractions is the network of Secret Wartime Tunnels that were used to coordinate the evacuation of Dunkirk and direct South East England's coastal defenses in World War II.

The tunnels were an expansion of the existing casemates, or underground barracks, that had been carved beneath Dover Castle and its grounds in the early 19th Century.

By the end of the war, they occupied three levels. Two levels are now accessible to tourists. They include an underground hospital, barracks, telephone exchanges, operations rooms, and other facilities used by forces under the command of Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay. The tunnels remained in use by the military until the early 1960s.

In the first part of the 55-minute tunnel tour, you walk through the hospital while loudspeakers play the sounds of soldiers talking and bombs exploding overhead.

Lights flicker and dim as you hear a surgeon try to save a pilot's leg in the primitive operating theatre. There's no narration; everything is told through the realistic exhibits (including gurneys with bloody sheets) recorded conversations, and sound effects.)

The last half of the tour is more conventional, with an expert guide describing your surroundings and answering questions as you explore the Command Centre, the Anti-Aircraft Operations Room, the Telephone Exchange and Repeater Station, and other rooms.

The tour includes a short documentary film about the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, when authorities hoped to rescue 45,000 soldiers who were trapped in German-occupied France.

In the end, 388,000 troops were ferried home during the nine days of "Operation Dynamo," which was coordinated by Sir Winston Churchill and Vice-Admiral Ramsay in the tunnels behind Dover's cliffs.

Visitor Information

Dover Castle England

ABOVE: The Cannon's Gateway entrance leads through  massive outer walls.

Visiting times: The castle's opening times vary with the season and current public-health conditions in the wake of COVID-19.   (You may need to book in advance for a specific day and time, but you can stay as long as you wish until the castle closes for the day.)

Give yourself plenty of time for a visit, especially on weekends when demonstrations of archery, knightly skills, siege tactics, World War Il activities, and other special events may be on the calendar.

How to get there: Dover Castle on the east side of Dover, a short walk or drive uphill from the town. It's about a mile or 1.6 km from the Dover Priory railroad station; from there, you can walk to the castle or take a local bus.

If you're visiting from the Cruise Terminal (which is at the far end of the harbor), I'd suggest hiring a taxi in one direction and walking back via the town center. Allow about half an hour for the return walk, or longer if you're tempted by the downtown shops and museums or the De Bradelei Wharf outlet mall.

  • Note: There are two main entrances to Dover Castle--the Cannon's Gateway entrance, which leads to the free car park; and the more impressive Constable's Gatway, which is an easy uphill walk from the coach drop-off point on the road beneath the castle.

Ticket prices: The standard price per adult was GBP 17 when we last checked, with lower concession and children's rates. The castle offers a money-saving family ticket for two adults and up to three children under 16.

Food: The castle has several places to eat, including the Great Tower Cafe (with sandwiches, soup, cakes, and ice cream), the Tunnels Tea Room in the Secret Wartime Tunnels, and a seasonal Ice-Cream Parlour. A clifftop Picnic Area overlooks the English Channel.

Wheelchair access: Paved walks connect the various parts of the castle, although some are rather steep. (Ask for an electric wheelchair in the Keep Yard Shop.)  Wheelchairs are allowed in the Secret Wartime Tunnels, where an elevator connects the two levels open to visitors.

Overnight accommodation: Two holiday cottages are on the castle grounds: Peverell's Tower (which sleeps two) and the Sergeant Major's House (with beds for up to six guests).

For more visitor information, see: English Heritage: Dover Castle

More photos

View from the roof of the Great Keep at Dover Castle.

ABOVE: Another view from the roof of Henry II's Keep.

Roof of Henry II's Great Keep at Dover Castle, England

ABOVE: The Keep's roof with battlements.

Dover Castle walls

ABOVE: Dover Castle's outer walls, as seen from the approach road.

Dover Castle - tower with gate

ABOVE: The path to Henry II's Keep leads through a tower gate.

Dover Castle and Harbor

ABOVE: A bench faces a wall that offers a view of Dover Harbour.

Dover Castle - Admiralty Walk - antiaircraft gun near the Secret Wartime Tunnels

ABOVE: An antiaircraft gun points toward the English Channel from the Admiralty Walk, near the Secret Wartime Tunnels.