Kent, UK: Dover Castle

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After a short drive down the coast from Walmer, we found ourselves at Dover Castle, another English Heritage property, hence another chance to get our money’s worth out of that membership.  If you don’t have a membership pass, Dover Castle is a fairly pricy outing at £17.50.  The castle dates back to the 1160s, during the reign of Henry II, but the oldest buildings on the property are the Roman lighthouse and Anglo-Saxon church.  There are also a series of tunnels; medieval ones under the castle, and a different set that  were constructed for defensive purposes during the Napoleonic Wars, but in more recent history served as the place where “Operation Dynamo,” also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was planned (over 300,000 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk during WWII by a fleet of ships launched from Dover, including many privately owned small craft).

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As directed by the girl working at the admissions desk, we first headed to those tunnels, since they only take groups of thirty people down at a time, to wait in the inevitable queue.  They also only do tours every half an hour, and the first one was already full, so we ended up having to wait about forty minutes for the “Secret Wartime Tunnels Tour.”  If the tour had been good, I wouldn’t have minded the wait, but it turned out to be incredibly lame.  After being shown a short newsreel, and an informational video about Dunkirk that mainly served to showcase some outdated technology, we were ushered down a long tunnel where graphics appeared on the wall to tell the story of Dunkirk; unfortunately, because we were at the back of the group, we couldn’t actually see what was going on.  We were then allowed to wander the last portion of the tunnels on our own, which included the communications rooms and some supposedly haunted messaging room.

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I’m not sure why they made such a fuss about it being a “guided” tour, as the guide’s only purpose seemed to be to hustle us along the tunnel; everything else was done by video.  I’m not really sure why they couldn’t just make the whole thing self-guided to avoid the waits altogether, but whatever, it was lame, and I wouldn’t advise waiting for it.  However, the Underground Hospital Tour didn’t have much of a queue when we were there, so if you want to see something underground, I’d probably go with that one – if it is as bad as the other tour, at least you won’t have wasted as much time, plus it’s a hospital, so might intrinsically be more interesting than some bare tunnels (I’m not knocking Operation Dynamo, I think it’s an incredible story, which is why it’s such a shame that it wasn’t told in a more engaging way).

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We emerged from the tunnels into a gift shop (naturally) and small museum that told the story of the tunnels in more detail, including a collection of British uniforms throughout history.  There were also some splendid views of the coast, and of the famous White Cliffs of Dover from this side.

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We’d passed an ice cream hut on the way down to the tunnels, and far be it from me to pass up an ice cream, so I grabbed a scoop of mint chocolate chip for the trek up to the castle proper (they do have a “land train” available for the elderly/infirm/just plain lazy, but I needed to burn off that ice cream, so we just walked everywhere.  It really wasn’t that far, and was probably faster than waiting for the land train to rock up).  The Great Tower is ringed by a number of small museums, and we decided to start with those first.

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The first museum offered an introduction to the Tower, and a video about the early Plantagenets (until I moved to Britain, I always pronounced Plantagenet with a silent “t,” which I suspect was far too French-leaning of me.  However, I still stubbornly persist in leaving off the “t” in filet, and don’t get me started on the pronunciation of “fete”).  The main reason this museum is noteworthy is because of the little sketches of “Roland the Farter,” the court jester.  Considering many of the visitors to Dover Castle are French (on account of all the ferries and the Channel Tunnel; Dover is so close to France that we could only get French radio stations as we neared the coast), I thought the first cartoon pictured above was delightfully cheeky (as is the second, in a more punny way).  Plus, he’s called Roland the Farter, which is hilarious.

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When we wandered into the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment Museum, I wasn’t expecting much more than a respite from the cold wind that had suddenly kicked up, especially because the first room was just full of boring plaques.  Happily, this small museum proved to be a treasure trove of terrible mannequins, authentic smells (at least, I think they were authentic smells, it is entirely possible that it might have just stank in there), and even one of those machines I inexplicably love that turns normal pennies into “souvenir” pennies.

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It was finally time to journey up the many stairs of the centrepiece of the castle, the Great Tower.  The Tower has been decorated to look as it would have during the reign of Henry II, and it is pretty fantastic.  There wasn’t much signage, so I didn’t have a clue where we were wandering to, but that was part of the experience.  Navigating the maze-like interior of the tower helped me understand how the layout would have helped deter would-be invaders, plus it gave the whole thing the air of a grand adventure.

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We began in the medieval kitchen, because you have to, really, in these types of places, and ventured up to a banqueting room.

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And made our way through some tunnels to discover a throne room,with even more hidden rooms behind the throne.

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One of which was a small stone chapel, with lovely small stained glass windows.  There was also some rather plush bedrooms in the tower, and the day had gotten so chilly I would have happily curled up beneath the furs in one of the beds, had I been allowed.

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Finally reaching the top of the tower, we were rewarded with even more gorgeous views of the coastline, as well as a good peek into the yard below that contained a trebuchet.

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The trip back down led us into a few more rooms we hadn’t caught on the way up, many of them with costumed actors in who were patiently answering visitors’ questions (fortunately, they weren’t actually re-enacting anything, which I always find slightly cringy).

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Upon safely reaching the bottom, we decided to tackle yet more stairs by heading down into the medieval tunnels, which were certainly very tunnely, but didn’t have much else to recommend them, so if you’re pressed for time, you can probably give them a miss.

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I did want to see the Anglo Saxon church, so we popped into that on our way out.  The Roman lighthouse is right next door, so we were able to have a peek inside that as well – it is just a crumbling stone tower (it’s the structure to the right of the church, below).  The church had a little history display set up in the back, and quite a lot of photos of the Queen and various other Royals attending the services there.

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I very much enjoyed the Great Tower, but the rest of the castle was a mixed bag.  The Royal Regiment Museum was entertaining, the views were very good indeed, but the tunnels were disappointing, and most of the other attractions on the property weren’t terribly noteworthy.  I think Dover Castle has a fascinating history behind it, but I feel like that wasn’t always made as clear as it could have been, and many of the things could have benefited from more signage (but that would probably go against the English Heritage policy of trying to sell guidebooks to everyone, so there you are).  I feel that if I had to pay 17 quid for entrance I would have been kind of annoyed, but as it was, it was a decent outing that didn’t quite live up to the hype of the brochure.  3.5/5

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