During the May half-term we headed over to Kent for a few days stay. Our intention was to enjoy the coast, visit a few castles and have a refreshing family week together. Sadly things didn't go quite to plan as the weather was terrible (just look at the mist in that photo above) and our car broke down too, meaning a big bill and us being stuck in our hotel room.
Never a family to let the weather get to us we headed over to Dover for a look around the castle. My husband had been here briefly back in 2015 but decided not to explore in depth that time as he knew the rest of us would love it, so this time we were all first timers and I can honestly say it won't be our last time of visiting. We took out English Heritage membership especially for this visit and with a bit of googling, we got a good deal of 20% of the membership price, so we now need to make good use of our years entry to all the English Heritage sites locally.
Arrival and Parking
Dover Castle is super easy to find, there was loads of signage and we used the maps function on my phone to guide us there. The attendants we met were very friendly and we quickly had a parking spot, very close to the welcome area. I suspect it wasn't the busiest of days though due to the high winds, drizzle and mist but it really didn't matter too much in the end as we had a great time.
We were given a map and offered a brochure to buy at the ticket office and then headed straight out to explore. There is no one route to follow, you can suit yourself.
Secret Wartime Tunnels
The kids were very excited to head first over to the secret wartime tunnels that can be explored. JJ loves learning about WWII, so these were perfect for him. First we went into the Underground hospital annexe, which is a guided tour that lasts about 20 minutes. Thankfully there was no queue and we headed straight in. It was really interesting to see where many wounded soldiers would have been taken and to think about the conditions they had to operate in. It is quite something that hundreds of people used to live and work down in the tunnels. Sadly you are not allowed to take any photos in any of the tunnels so I can't share the whole experience with you but I definitely recommend it.
Once out of the hospital annexe we wanted to visit the Operation Dynamo: Rescue from Dunkirk tunnel but there was a coachload of international students waiting, so we decided to come back later. Sadly throughout our visit there appeared to be a queue at most points, so we just had to bite the bullet and wait for about 30 minutes. Luckily the rain had stopped at that point and the kids waited nicely. The tour was about 60 minutes and is really interactive, you keep moving from room to room and hearing and seeing different slide shows, voice overs and exhibits. It is far better than I make it sound I assure you!
Dover Castle is a really big site and you can spend ages exploring all the grounds. The kids love it when there is open space and they spent quite a bit of happy time on the cliffs watching the ferries coming in and out and running around pretending to be soldiers. I can also imagine on a clear day just how stunning the views are.
We didn't end up seeing everything the castle had to offer as the day was pressing on and the weather was still bad and to be honest it was lucky we did leave when we did as this was the day the car broke down on us in a line of traffic at a busy roundabout.
Exploring Inside the Castle
It is great that you can go into the castle and have a really good look around, many of the rooms are staged to be as they would have been when King Henry II was reigning.
We choose to look around by ourselves but at a few points we caught up with a led ghost tour of the house and it looked like great theatrical fun. Miss M was trying to persuade us to join them but the rest of us liked the freedom of going where we wanted when we wanted to. The girls did have fun chatting to one of the actors who was posing as the ghost of a WWII soldier.
I loved going up to the ramparts and being able to look out with 360 degree views over Dover and Kent beyond. As I've already mentioned the weather wasn't great but even still, you can see it was still pleasant to look round.
Within the castle walls there was a couple of really interesting exhibitions, the Arthur's Hall which gave us the history to the family that lived here and the internal wars they had going on and the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment museum.
Sadly we didn't end up going down into the medieval tunnels or visiting the late-Saxon church and Roman lighthouse, but we can see these all next time.
Facilities at Dover Castle
We visited the NAAFI restaurant and whilst everything we had there to eat or drink was really tasty, it is also super expensive. To the point that my kids looked at the prices and self-selected to not have much! We had cake and drinks for 4 and the cost was over £25. I can imagine on a warm day all the eating facilities on site will be chocca busy as we only just got a seat on a poor day and the Inner Bailey cafe was heaving. There was plenty of tables in the Secret Wartime Tunnels tearoom though, I expect as no-one knows it is there until they have done the tunnel tour!
All the toilets we used during our visit were clean and well-stocked but we did have to wait in a queue of about six ladies in the NAAFI restaurant around lunchtime.
There is a lot of walking to be done at Dover Castle as it is a big site and very hilly, we choose to use the free land train at one point as it gave our legs a break and the kids love that sort of thing.
Both of the shops we visited were well stocked and had some really interesting items. Miss E was tempted by a patriotic colouring book for £4.99 and Miss M treated to herself to some liquorice comforts which were a tad expensive at £3.50 for a tub, but they made her happy and it was her holiday money.
In all we had an excellent time at Dover Castle and spent nearly five hours there. Considering we didn't see some of the areas/ exhibits, we could have spent a lot longer on a nice day.
If our family had visited without membership, the day would have cost us £47.60 without gift aid or £52.50 with gift aid. As it was we only paid just over £74 for the membership for all five of us for a year. Having now visited four sites this has already paid for itself, so I'd definitely recommend membership if you think you might like to explore many of the fabulous English heritage sites.
In all we had a wonderful time and we will definitely be back to Dover Castle to explore more agian in the future.
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