A Family Excursion to Dover Castle

Introduction to Dover Castle, England

A straightforward drive southeast out of London, perched high on the famous white cliffs, is the incredible Dover Castle. Of course it is imposing and impressive, that is the point of castles, but this location has been imposing and impressive and very important to England since Roman times and again for Henry II, and the Allies in World War II.

For many Americans our sense of history is short. So to find something that has been around since Roman times is pretty exciting, even for kids. They may not have the same understanding of time as adults, but they do know Romans (very cool people from a long long time ago) and World War II (amazing stories from a long time ago) and that good stuff sometimes happens in between, like sword fighting along the battlements, which could be 12th century, or for us, today.

Knowing we had to experience such history first handI packed all four kids, one grandmother, a collection of plastic swords (always handy on castle visits for any spontaneous re-enactment) and down through Kent we went.

Lighthouse and church

When the Romans ruled England, they built two lighthouses on this location, one of which is still standing. Next to the lighthouse is the church of St. Mary in Castro, built by the Anglo-Saxons and still in use today. While it is amazing that buildings from so long ago are still around, and the lighthouse in particular makes a good photo backdrop, although neither are what the kids like best.

Dover Castle Keep

For that you need to leap forward to 1066 and William the Conqueror, who, having just defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, strengthened the fortifications of the castle and one hundred years later Henry II built the Keep, a great square tower. Today, history comes alive in these carefully reconstructed rooms complete with costumed characters who invite the children to explore and ask questions and, in the case of 10-year-old Elizabeth, play a 12thcentury board game.

The tower is, of course, stone, which makes it cold. Therefore fires were blazing in every room, which make them smoky. We had a long and in-depth discussion about what it would be like to live day-in-day out in such a smoky place (to say nothing of the costumed volunteers). Would you get used to it? Or would you just feel sick all the time? Would your eyes stop watering over time?

This is when history makes sense to kids, when they can start to imagine what living at Dover Castle would have been like 800 years ago. The kitchens were also great for that. The size of the cooking pots and the volume of food that was produced there goes a long way to realizing how many people it takes to run a castle, all of whom you have to feed!These hands-on experiences describe history far better than any traditional lesson could.

Secret wartime tunnels in the white cliffs of Dover

But the true highlight of the day requires another leap in time, 625 years forward and then another 135. Underneath the castle, cut into the cliffs, are a network of tunnels. Originally built to house troops during the Napoleonic wars,(they housed 2000 men) they served a far more exciting purpose during WWII, as the top-secret planning location for the evacuation of Dunkirk.

It was here that Operation Dynamo was planned and carried out, one of the most daring, and successful,rescue operations in military history. In May 1940, Britain and its allies were trapped under German artillery on the French beaches at Dunkirk. Initially there seemed no hope for these troops, but a bold plan was made in the tunnels of Dover Castle and 850 boats (including fishing boats and pleasure crafts) sailed to Dunkirk and in the end rescued 338,226 men. The planning rooms have been preserved but the fact that such a secret plan was hatched in such a secret place is what really caught the children’s imagination.

You can take an organized tour but we decided to explore on our own, the better choice I think, and I just let them run through the empty tunnels pretending to be in a variation of Scooby Doo-does-Dunkirk plot.

The Battlements at Dover Castle

Surrounding the property, higher up, are the fortifications or battlements for the castle. It is a great place for sword fighting or just gazing out to sea. On a clear day you can see all the way to Calais, France. As I watched my kids sword fighting along the battlements, with the loser (but in this case perhaps the winner) getting to roll down the hill before springing back to life and charging up again, with the sea just beyond, I knew it had been an excellent day of history and fun.

Relevant Links:

London sightseeing with kids

Guide to London with kids on Peter Greenberg

Great family friendly guides and walking tours in Europe

Ciao Bambino recommended England family hotels

VisitEngland – offical website for English tourism

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