Looming high over Dover town centre is the mighty fortress that remarkably includes almost every era in English history from Roman to WW2. Although Dover Castle boasts a rare Roman lighthouse, the bulk of what we see above ground today is either Henry II, or Napoleonic, when massive rebuilding was undertaken.
A visit starts, for most visitors, with a glutes enhancing climb up a very steep hillside and through the gatehouse, and a WW2 era traffic light, and then you can actually wander around fairly freely despite the many signs warning that payment is needed past this point.
You will need a ticket though if you want to go past the inner ring of stone into the centre of the castle. Up here is the massive stone keep, one of the last built in England in the square style.
Inside is however wonderfully medieval, and a total maze of stone corridors and spiral staircases. There are a number of large rooms set up as if the Lord or King is visiting, but really the best fun is to be had getting slightly lost in the corridors and small rooms that are all over the place.
One tiny gap in the wall lead to a chapel with ethereal music and stained glass windows, while stone staircases spiralised their way up and down and at odd shaped junctions.
Some corridors are empty dead ends and as much fun to wander down to see, nothing much, but keep rambling around. Eventually you end up on the roof, with views across the local town, and of course, the English Channel looking out for invaders.
From up here you can see an old church, and a stone tower next to it, which turns out to be the Roman era lighthouse, one of only three surviving Roman-era lighthouses in the world. It was used for a while as the bell tower for the church next door, but not any more. The church is also ancient, although heavily restored/modernised by the Victorians. It’s also a functioning military chapel, and still holds regular services.
Something that few seemed to peer inside while I was there is a separate museum, of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment and The Queen’s Regiment, and is a series of rooms showing off their historical activities, and a rather realistic replica of a WW1 trench.
Having been above ground, this is a castle that’s also as famous for what’s underground.
Not that easy to find, there are the medieval tunnels, a twisting warren under the castle ranging from lined walls to rough stones and lots of steep slopes to walk up and down. A corridor lined with cannon to fire into the moats if anyone got into them. It also turned out to be a dead end, so you have to head all the way back, and up an earlier dauntingly steep slope down that is now exhaustingly steep up on the way back out.
A bit like Dover town itself, the castle seems to involve a lot of going up and down slopes and stairs.
The point is not that there is a huge amount of history to see, nor is the place packed full of historic objects to see and signs to read. It’s a place to soak up the atmosphere of an awful lot of stone piled up to form a castle. It’s a place you wont leave with your head spinning from all the history on show, unlike say Windsor Castle which is overflowing with history. This castle is one to wander around delightfully discovering tunnels and corridors and odd spaces to explore.
It’s also a castle with a lot of spaces to explore around the perimeter, small towers with nothing to see but the thrill of having realised you can go inside them. A surly child sulked as dad took a photo, then screamed repeatedly when dad was more interested in something else. Another exclaimed loudly what’s the point of visiting if everything is private, having gone to one solitary door thus marked.
Those sulky kids aside, what is clear is that this is a very family friendly site, if you have kids who think the idea of climbing around an old stone castle and exploring secret spaces is their idea of fun. It certainly is mine.
I spent a good half-day there, and didn’t see everything, so a full visit can probably soak up a whole day.
The one set of tunnels I admittedly skipped were the WW2 tunnels, as the queue was long and by now my feet were sore. That’s for another day.
Oh, and if there ever was a town that merited a funicular railway, Dover is that town.