The nice thing about having houseguests is the opportunity to play tourist in one’s own country. We took advantage of the odd day off last week and dragged our most recent visitor to Canterbury and Dover, a part of the country we hadn’t yet explored.
View from the ramparts/Dover Castle
Dover Castle stands sentry over the White Cliffs of Dover, a strategically significant spot since before the Iron Age. Duke William of Normandy built the first castle at Dover, but it was King Henry II that undertook the building of the Great Tower in 1179. Henry supposedly built the tower to impress important visitors on their way to Canterbury Cathedral, although it’s position on the hill allowed Henry II to observe, impress or threaten anyone sailing across the Straits of Dover from the mainland, a mere 21 miles away. The darker historians imply King Henry built this castle to assuage his guilt about his role in the murder of Thomas Becket.
Churchill At Dover Castle © Imperial War Museum
In successive centuries, Dover Castle withstood Civil, Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, expanding and modernizing after each conflict. Dover Castle didn’t make its lasting mark on history until World War II, when its secret war tunnels buried into the hills beneath Dover Castle became the nerve center for an extraordinary event.
In May 1940, advancing German troops pushed British, French and Belgian soldiers onto the beaches at Dunkirk, France. Over 400,000 soldiers were trapped on the beach with the sea in front of them and the advancing German army behind them. As this horrifying situation slowly unfolded, Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay began planning troop evacuations… code-named Operation Dynamo. Ramsay estimated 45,000 of the 400,000 trapped troops could be rescued. The unfortunate soldiers left behind faced certain capture or annihilation at the hands of German troops.
At 18:57 26 May 1940, Operation Dynamo commenced. British military vessels were able to evacuate 7,669 men on the first day of the mission. Day two, 11,874. On day 3, the pace of rescue quickened as the “little ships” joined British destroyers in the rescue effort. Lifeboats, pleasure craft, tugboats and barges manned by old men and young boys sailed from ports throughout England, Scotland and Wales to help ferry troops from the beach to the rescue ships or back across the sea. Other soldiers “held the line” against the advancing Germans at great cost, giving their fellow soldiers a chance at escape. By the end of Operation Dynamo on June 4th, 338, 226 men had been rescued.
Entrance to the secret tunnels at Dover Castle
The planning for Operation Dynamo took place in the subterranean tunnels dug into the hills at Dover Castle. Now open to the public after an extensive renovation, the tunnels offer a chance to explore the nerve center for Operation Dynamo.
Visitors begin their guided visit by walking down into an underground bunker room, where they must await “orders” before proceeding to a operational brief in an adjacent bunker. Multimedia presentations, preservation and restoration of the underground tunnel system brings the experience to life. A fabulous piece of history in a unusual location.
Things to Know
Current rules prohibit photography. There are a privileged few that have English Heritage permission to photograph the site. You can view their photos of the War Tunnels here.
Dover Castle is an all-day outing. In addition to the Wartime Tunnels, there are medieval tunnels, the restored Great Tower, the Regimental Museum, the underground hospital, an Anglo-Saxon church and the battlements. The Castle is a 10 minute drive from the White Cliffs of Dover.
Admission was a bit steep (£44.20 for a family) , so we opted to purchase an English Heritage membership that day. The cost of one day’s admission was half the cost of a full year membership and allows free admission to over 400 English Heritage properties.
The tours into the Secret Wartime Tunnels are guided to ensure no one gets lost in the winding maze of passageways down below. The timing of the last tour varies, so check with the visitor’s desk when you purchase your tickets.
You can actually stay at the castle! Peverell’s Tower offers self-catering accommodation for two. The Sergeant Major’s House accommodates 6+ . I’m a little bit sad we didn’t stay there….maybe next time.
Check times, dates and details before you go.