A Palace, A Fort, A Legend

From the outside, Dover Castle completely justifies its nickname “The Key to England”. Its mighty walls and massive Keep can be seen from far away, telling a story of protecting the shortest route to England for 900 years.

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The first people who realised the importance of Dover were the Romans, and as always, it was the Normans who built the first modest castle immediately after the 1066 conquest. A century later in 1179, Henry II, the first Plantagenet King, entertained the French King in the castle. The French guest must have said something about the state of the castle because immediately after his visit, Henry embarked on a massive building project. At first, Dover was planned as a fortified palace rather than a fort, but when Henry’s son, King John, managed to lose all the French parts of the kingdom, Dover became a fort, ready to defend the realm from foreign invasion. 

King John is notoriously famous for being one of the cruellest kings in English history. His actions led his barons to rebel against him and forced him to sign in 1215 the “Magana Carta”, one of the most important documents in history. When the king tried to revoke the charter, his barons asked Prince Louis of France, also known as  “The Lion”, to invade and take the English throne. Louis landed in Kent, King John fled east and the people of south-east England accepted the French prince as the new king of England  St Paul Cathedral. Dover Castle was the last stronghold in the region that still supported the king and so Louis laid siege to the castle but failed to conquer it…twice. To his second siege, he even brought his secret weapon, a trebuchet, called “Evil Neighbour”. Eventually, Dover became an English symbol. 

Like many other coastal fortresses, Dover was modified throughout the years to fit its role as the “Key of England”, with massive changes taking place during the Napoleonic wars that began at the end of the 18th century. As part of the changes, a network of underground tunnels was built to serve as an accommodation to British forces and to create more gun positions on the cliffs themselves. 

The castle with its underground tunnels was used massively during the 20th century and most famously, served as the headquarters from which operation Dynamo was run, trying to save the British Army in Dunkirk.

In 1958, almost 900 years since the conquest, Dover Castle stopped acting as a military base, although a small part of the tunnel network was still used as an atomic shelter until the 1980s. Dover Castle moved to the hands of the English Heritage who made changes to the medieval Keep, trying to recreate its original interior. The castle is open to the public and is one of the most popular attractions in south-east England. 

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The Key to England is Disappointing

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Dover Castle during the last half-term break of the school year in May. We spent a few days in the area and stayed not far from the castle. We decided to leave our visit to the castle to the last day and this meant that we kept seeing its mighty walls, towers and Keep every time we came and went from our hotel, which really developed my appetite for a visit. Unfortunately, in this case, the build-up of such expectation turned out to be a let-down and the visit to Dover Castle itself was not nearly as rewarding as I expected it to be.  Make no mistake, Dover Castle is a fascinating place to visit, but the current experience you will have is a fraction of what it could be if the place was running differently.

I once attended a talk given by a senior figure from the National Trust. He said that extensive research by the organisation has shown that people are most excited about medieval history and 20th-century history. Most of the National Trust properties cannot offer these two options (nor English Heritage). Dover Castle certainly can but chooses for some reason not to.

Dover Castle is massive and when I first entered, I was certain that one day would not be enough to explore it all, but I was wrong. It was like opening a new sandbox video game that promises a large map to explore but when you play it, you realise most of it is not very interesting. We started our visit in the war tunnels where you join a guided tour that takes you between the underground rooms and corridors. The tour included a great interactive display where you learn about the role this castle played in WWII. It was exciting and effective and raised my hopes regarding the rest of the visit. Unfortunately, it seems that Dover Castle knows how to tell only a single part of its history.  

Since we started to “chase” castles, we have visited many places that do not tell their story well. Some of these places have a good excuse since they are ruins and there is no suitable place to present a decent exhibition. This is not the case at Dover Castle: the Keep has been restored and it is intact. It is a massive structure consisting of several floors, galleries, corridors and rooms and almost all of them are empty. Like many other visitors, I explored most of it, hoping to discover an exhibition or display.  Besides a few rooms that have been designed to recreate the days of King Henry II, there was nothing. My tip is to avoid the walk around the upper floors altogether. There is a display in one of the outer buildings, but it does not cover some of the castles’ greatest battles and moments, only the life of its builder. 

With so much space in the Keep and around it, why have the English Heritage avoided telling, for example, the story of the invasion of  Louis VIII, the King of France, in the 13th century? His siege of Dover Castle is a magnificent medieval story filled with all the vivid details you would expect from such an era. You do not need to be passionate about history to enjoy a good account of the bravery of English soldiers against a massive French army and this key event is the one that turned Dover Castle into an English symbol.

Things got even worse on our visit when I tried to explore the medieval tunnels. Here, the Heritage has not even bothered to put up a sign to make visitors aware that the tunnels are dead-ended. I saw several people panicking when they thought they had become lost underground (never mind the fact that Heritage has not explained the purpose of the tunnels, just put a sign up showing the tunnel map at the entrance to make things clear to your guests). 

To sum things up, Dover Castle is not a cheap place to visit. If you are not a member of the English Heritage, a family visit costs more than £50. Furthermore, when an organisation names itself English Heritage, you would expect it to embrace the actual heritage of the places it is running, right?

Visiting Dover Castle is still an impressive experience. If the castle was a restaurant, it could have had a prominent, central place in the Michelin guide earning three stars. Instead, in its current state, it would get only one. er