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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Family walks around Faversham, Kent

The image above sums up our introduction to Faversham in North Kent. We arrived on a miserable day and after dropping off our luggage headed to the local nature reserve to stretch our legs. Contrary to what you may think I rather like the bleakness of the mudflats against the grey sky.

Faversham may not be an obvious tourist destination but it has an interesting history. In particular it was home to the first gunpowder plant in the country, an industry that featured in most of our walks.

Oare Marshes Nature Reserve

Oare Marshes Nature Reserve comprises an area of saltmarsh, mudflats and reed beds. We followed part of the nature trail from the visitor centre along to the hide where we stopped to look for birds. The track forms part of a 2km route around the reserve and is perfect for a short evening walk.

Looking over to Sheppey island
Looking over to Sheppey island

There are good views over to the Isle of Sheppey which looks tantalisingly close across the Swale Estuary. At one time a ferry operated to the island from the causeway but nowadays it’s a 45 minute detour by road.

Oare Marshes nature reserve
Oare Marshes nature reserve

The tide was out so we watched the birds wading through the mudflats. I’m no expert, but my other half informs me they included curlew, avocet, redshank and shoveler ducks.

Oare marshes
Oare marshes

It’s hard to believe but this peaceful place was once home to a gunpowder factory. In 1916 a huge explosion occurred at the nearby Guncotton factory in Uplees which killed more than 100 men and boys. Despite being heard as far away as Norwich the explosion was kept secret for several weeks, presumably due to the ongoing war. Much of the factory that once stood on this marsh was destroyed although there are still remnants of concrete bases in the grassland.

Gunpowder Works Country Park

This is a small reserve that’s full of interest. As its name indicates it is sited on the remains of a former gunpowder factory. The park contains relics from it’s industrial past, including parts of the mills and the leats (canals created to enable movement of gunpowder around the site).

Gunpowder Mills country park
Gunpowder Mills country park

Gunpowder was produced here until the 1930s when the site was closed and left to nature for more than 70 years. Nowadays the woodland is managed and new structures such as a boardwalk across the marshland have been put in place.

Gunpowder Works Country Park
Gunpowder Works Country Park

There’s a small visitor centre based in the old cooperage, where the gunpowder barrels were once made. When it’s open you can find out more about the history of the site and pick up a walking trail leaflet. Walks around the park are colour coded; we chose the longest yellow circuit which took about an hour.

Looking up, Gunpowder Mills country park
Looking up, Gunpowder Mills country park

If you’re in the area on a weekend afternoon you can also visit Chart Gunpowder Mills. Situated in the middle of a housing estate you’ll find Faversham’s first gunpowder factory. It’s a fully working mill but given its location I assume they don’t manufacture the gunpowder!

Faversham town and creek

The town of Faversham is great for random wandering. We walked through the town, nosing at the various houses, along to Standard Quay. Whilst the area where the barges are moored is interesting, most of Standard Quay appears to be given over antique shops.We’re not ‘antique tourists’ so carried on through to Iron Wharf. This is a working boatyard where you’ll find boats in all stages of repair.

Faversham creek boatyard
Faversham creek boatyard

We weren’t sure if we were supposed to be walking through as it’s a bit haphazard with rusting boats and containers stacked on top of each other. There’s a definite boating community feel to the area and lots of different vessels to look at. At the end of the boatyard there’s a small bridge that takes you out on to the marshes, and signs for the Saxon Shore Way which indicated we’d been on the right route. We turned back soon after, but if we’d felt energetic we could have walked all the way to Whitstable. Next time maybe!

More info:

  • Oare Marshes Nature Reserve is open all year round. There’s no entrance charge.
  • The Gunpowder Works Country Park is open from 9am-5pm daily. The visitor centre (where the only toilets are) is open from 10.30am-4.30pm at weekends between April-November.
  • Chart Gunpowder Mills are open 2-5pm weekend afternoons from April to October. It’s a bit tricky to find so keep a close eye out for the signs whilst driving round the estate.
  • We didn’t follow a specific trail in Faversham but if you want to know what you’re actually looking at this walk looks perfect. It’s a flat 4 mile route through the town and along Faversham Creek.
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