Discovering Dover Castle, Kent

Have you been to Dover Castle? It’s one of English Heritage’s top attractions, popular with visitors from across the world. Located above the white cliffs, the site occupies a prominent defensive location and is a microcosm of British history.

To give you just a flavour. First used by Iron Age inhabitants as a hill fort, the Romans built a lighthouse, the Saxons a church. Henry II was responsible for the stone tower, Henry III added gatehouses whilst Henry VIII just visited. Underground tunnels were built during the Napoleonic Wars; these became the headquarters of Operation Dynamo in World War II and a nuclear refuge in the Cold War. And now they’re invaded by tourists, including us!

Dover Castle
Dover Castle

With so much to see its difficult to know where to start. However, we’d been warned about queues for the tunnels that’s where we headed first.

There are more than 3 miles of tunnels in the chalk cliffs, most of which are inaccessible to visitors. However the World War II Secret Wartime Tunnels and Underground Hospital are open. Although we’d arrived early we were disappointed to find there was already a 90 minute wait to tour the main set of tunnels. We reluctantly decided to skip these and just visit the underground hospital.

Entrance to wartime tunnels
Entrance to wartime tunnels

Hospital tunnels

The hospital tunnels were used from 1941 as a triage centre for wounded troops. Medical dressings were applied and emergency operations carried out to stabilise the injured before they were moved further inland to recuperate. We joined a tour and followed the story of an injured pilot. This took us through recreated rooms complete with ‘real’ wartime sounds and dimming lights to make us feel as if we we’re under attack. The operating theatre was my favourite but it was also interesting to see the everyday dormitories where some of the women lived.

Dover Castle
Dover Castle

Medieval tunnels

I’d spotted another set of tunnels on the map so after a coffee break we took a long walk round to the opposite side of the castle. Built during and after the 1216 siege to help protect the castle from attack is a maze of medieval tunnels. Dark and atmospheric in places, they give you a real feel for how life might have been. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a soldier!

Dover Castle great tower
Dover Castle great tower

The Great Tower

By then we’d had enough of tunnels so headed above ground to see the star attraction, the Great Tower. This was used both to entertain visitors and as state apartments for the king. Many of the rooms, such as the King’s chamber, are furnished and richly decorated to reflect this. I read that the walls are 6.5 metre thick in places, you could never imagine that in a modern building.

Inside the Great Tower, Dover Castle
Inside the Great Tower, Dover Castle

From the top of the Great Tower the views out across the Channel are impressive. It’s easy to see France on a clear day but even if the weather is cloudy it’s mesmerising to just watch the comings and goings of the port traffic.

View from the Great Tower, Dover Castle
View from the Great Tower, Dover Castle

Our next stop was lunch in the Great Tower cafe; a disappointing choice. It was a Bank Holiday weekend so you’d expect them to be prepared for a busy time but the cafe appeared overwhelmed with visitors. At 12.45pm we queued out of the door only to find that they’d run out of kid’s sandwiches and there was no bread to make any more. 

Roman lighthouse at Dover castle
Roman lighthouse at Dover castle

We walked off our lunch with a wander around the battlements out to the church and lighthouse. The kids enjoyed a runaround at Avranches Tower which was once a multi-level tower used by archers firing crossbows.

Roman lighthouse

I was particularly impressed with the Roman lighthouse. Almost 2000 years old it is one of a pair which once protected the Roman port of Dubris. Although you cannot tell from the photo above it stands right next to the Saxon church, rather a strange pairing!

The visit was wrapped up with a trip to the gift shop and an ice cream. Although we spent most of the day at the castle we didn’t see everything. So what are my tips for other visitors to Dover Castle? Definitely plan an entire day on site, take a picnic and try to visit on a quiet day.

More info:

  • Dover Castle is open daily for most of the year but only at weekends during the winter. Check the website for exact opening times. It’s run by English Heritage so is free to members, a family ticket for non-members costs £46.80 excluding gift aid.
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Inkpen Wild Walk, Berkshire

I’m pretty sure the best antidote to a dismal grey day is a walk in the countryside. Last weekend we ignored the clouds and drizzle and headed to Inkpen in Berkshire for a walk that combined a macabre gibbet and spring crocuses!

We followed a shortened version of the Inkpen Wild Walk, a walk designed by the local wildlife trust that links two of their reserves. Our 6 mile route started at Inkpen Common, the longer alternative being a 10 mile walk which joins up to Kintbury railway station.

Inkpen Common nature reserve
Inkpen Common nature reserve

At Inkpen Common villagers once had the rights to graze livestock and burn the gorse in their ovens. Nowadays the gorse sits alongside other heathland plants and the reserve is a haven for reptiles. However the likelihood of spotting lizards and snakes sunbathing on a cold March day was pretty minimal.

Along the Wayfarer's Walk
Along the Wayfarer’s Walk

We puffed our way up Walbury Hill, the highest hill in Berkshire and the starting point for two long distance walks, the Test Way and the Wayfarer’s Walk. A wide chalk track led us along the Hampshire Downs. The fields either side were full of sheep although we looked in vain for any lambs.

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Combe Gibbet

Combe Gibbet, at the top of Gallows Down, is a notorious local attraction. The original gibbet was erected in 1676 to hang adulterers George Broomham and Dorothy Newman. They had murdered Broomham’s wife and son after their illicit affair had been discovered. Today’s gibbet is actually a replica but you can still imagine the crowds gathering to watch the hanging.

From the gibbet we continued along Wayfarer’s Walk, taking in the amazing views and snacking on biscuits, before heading down steeply from Inkpen Hill. There was plenty of evidence of spring arriving; buds on twigs, plants peeking through the soil and stinging nettles starting to grow again. We found a muddy puddle with some great animal and bird tracks which we attempted to identify.

Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve
Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve

Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve

The second reserve of the day was Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve. Accessed via Pottery Lane (Inkpen was once home to several potteries) we first had to walk past a number of large and imposing houses; property envy was rife!

The meadow has the largest wild crocus population in Britain. Although we visited at peak viewing time (March) I was a little disappointed with the number of crocuses. I was expecting a field of purple but the flowers were rather more sparse. Perhaps my expectations were too high or maybe it hasn’t been a great year for the crocus. Crocuses aside, the meadows must be idyllic on a sunny summer day.

Pooh sticks in the wood
Pooh sticks in the wood

The drizzle started so the last mile was walked pretty quickly. There was still time to throw a few twigs into a woodland stream, and admire an amazing treehouse in a back garden.

Despite some initial moans from the kids (we’ve got to walk 6 miles?) we had a great afternoon walking and I’m glad we made the effort to get out rather than lazing around at home.

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Exploring the Roman history of Caerleon, Newport

KI sometimes think that the places we enjoy most are those that are completely unexpected and unplanned. That’s exactly how I felt when we stopped off in the town of Caerleon, South Wales.

Caerleon was home to a Roman legionary fortress and settlement, Isca Augusta, one of just three permanent fortresses in Britain. It’s a fantastic place to visit if your children are studying the Romans as in addition to a Roman Legion museum there’s an amphitheatre, baths and barracks to explore. Amazingly they’re all free to visit!

National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

We started with a visit to the Roman Legion museum. This small museum is located inside what remains of the fortress and contains many items found in the area around Caerleon. The various displays are dedicated to different aspects of Roman life and death, including how they ate, lived and worked.

National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon
National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

My favourite exhibit was that of the gemstones found in the drains of the Roman baths. Most originally belonged in rings; it’s thought they were lost by legionary soldiers whilst bathing.

Inside National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon
Inside National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

For younger children there’s a chance to dress up as a Roman soldier and see what life would have been like inside a barracks room. The museum has a small but well stocked shop, both my kids found something to spend their money on.

Outside there’s a Roman garden but we visited at the wrong time of year to appreciate it.

The Roman Baths

The Roman baths, just down the road from the museum, were used by the soldiers for relaxation and socialising. They originally consisted of cold, warm and hot pools, heated changing rooms and an outdoor pool (now covered, see the photo below).

We followed the raised boardwalk around the edge of the baths and were treated to projected images and sound which make it seem like the pool contains water and Roman swimmers. It’s cleverly done and is similar to the visual effects we enjoyed at another CADW location, Blaenavon ironworks.

Caerleon Roman baths
Caerleon Roman baths

Look carefully when you walk around the large pool and you’ll be able to see the imprint of a dog’s paw in one of the clay tiles. It’s amazing to think it’s almost 2000 years old.

Caerleon amphitheatre

The amphitheatre was built around AD90 and could seat up to 6000 spectators. Although it is the best preserved amphitheatre in Britain you’ll still need to use your imagination; my favourite kind of attraction. Official excavations first started over 100 years ago with the removal of 30,000 tons of soil from the site. Informal excavations had taken place beforehand as evidenced by the use of ‘Roman’ stone in some local buildings!

Exploring the amphitheatre at Caerleon
Exploring the amphitheatre at Caerleon

The amphitheatre is covered in grass and we were free to wander at will. Back in the Roman times it would have had an upper seating tier made from wood and a sandy arena floor. The soldiers used it for parades, training and deadly gladiator battles. It’s rather hard to envisage this nowadays but it must have been an incredible spectacle.

Roman barracks

Close by you can find the remains of the Roman barracks, home to the 5,500 soldiers. There are a couple of interpretation boards around the site. These explain what the foundation walls and marks on the ground are. It’s possible to make out the soldiers quarters and some large circular ovens but it would be great to see some further interpretation of the site.

We really enjoyed Caerleon. If you’re driving through South Wales on the M4 make an effort to stop off; it’s only a few minutes drive from Newport junction and it’s definitely worth it.

More info

  • The National Roman Legion Museum is free to enter and open daily (although only 2-5pm on Sunday). The museum runs lots of family events throughout the year, current ones include archery, mosaic making and the chance to meet a Roman soldier.
  • The Roman fortress and baths  and amphitheatre are also free to enter. Both are open daily except for a short period over Christmas.
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Wartime secrets of Coleshill village, Oxfordshire

Coleshill in Oxfordshire is a village with a secret underground history. A couple of weeks ago we joined a queue of visitors standing beside a hole in a wall to find out more.

Let’s rewind to World War II. Following the rapid advance of the German army through France, Winston Churchill decided to create a secret army to be the last line of defence in the event of a ground invasion. These Auxiliary Units were trained at Coleshill House and were responsible for carrying out sabotage acts, such as blowing up bridges, if Hitler invaded.

The stepladder down to the Operational Base at Coleshill
The stepladder down to the Operational Base at Coleshill

Coleshill bunker

The units of 4-8 men operated out of hidden underground bunkers, most of which were destroyed at the end of the war. There is still an original bunker on the Coleshill estate but it’s in a fragile condition so a replica has been recreated. It’s open to visitors several times per year and we’d come to learn more about a little known aspect of the war.

After a short introduction by the guide our group walked a few paces into the wood to the bunker entrance. This would have been completely hidden during the war but for safety reasons we followed a well trodden path to the entrance. Yet once you step on down the ladder you really are transported back in time.

The bunker is similar to an underground Nissan hut. It consists of a main room which is about 15ft long with bunk beds and a table, a basic toilet, a small food preparation area and an ammunition store. Our group stood in the dimly lit room whilst the guide told us all about the life of the men stationed in the bunker. Operating in complete secrecy the Auxiliers learnt how to set booby traps, use explosives and communicate via dead letter drops.

The exit from Coleshill Operational Base
The exit from Coleshill Operational Base

At the end we crawled out through a tunnel to exit the bunker. Fortunately for us there was a carpet on the floor so we didn’t get muddy; sometimes I’m happy not to go for the full authentic experience!

Coleshill House itself burnt down in the 1950s. The secret existence of the Auxiliary Units only became general public knowledge in the 1990s. In a similar way to the story of the code breaking operations at Bletchley Park I’m sure that one day Hollywood will come knocking. It really is a fascinating story, and we all learnt loads.

Coleshill water mill
Coleshill water mill

Away from the bunker, the estate and part of the village, is managed by the National Trust. You can pick up a leaflet locally which shows the other attractions and details a couple of walks. Our visit coincided with the opening of Coleshill Mill so we headed over once we’d finished at the bunker.

Coleshill Mill

Making flour at Coleshill mill
Making flour at Coleshill mill

Coleshill Mill is a water powered grain mill. We were mesmerised by the turning water wheel for a while before looking round inside. The mill contains two floors, with volunteers on hand to explain the workings of the different wheels. The kids enjoyed watching the flour pouring into a sack on the ground floor (and onto surrounding cobwebs) but the detailed explanation of the mill operation went a little over our heads.

My daughter was much more interested in milling some grain outside to make flour. This seemed a popular activity with all ages; I had a sneaky go too when all the kids had disappeared!

We finished off with a drink in the community run village shop and cafe. It had been an educational afternoon out for all of us; if you live relatively close by I’d definitely recommend a visit during one of the future bunker open days.

More info:

  • The Coleshill water mill and Operational Base have limited opening dates and times, check the National Trust website for details. Admission to the estate and bunker is free. The water mill is free to NT members, non members pay £8.75 for a family ticket.
  • Access to the bunker is via a step ladder. The bunker is dark and the guide recounts what life would have been like in some detail (i.e. realities of war) so it could be a little scary for some younger children. I’d personally suggest the bunker is best suited to 5+ years although there were pre-schoolers in our group.
  • The mill was open to all ages but with working machinery and deep water you’ll need to keep a close eye on your kids.
  • You can read lots more about Coleshill House and the Auxiliary Units on the British Resistance Archive website.
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