Dover Castle: The Complete Guide

Dover Castle
••• Dover Castle. Terry Whittaker / Getty Images

After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the first place William the Conqueror stopped to build a temporary castle (and his base for conquering the rest of Britain) was the high ground above Dover harbor, the site of Dover Castle. It had guarded the shortest English Channel crossing from long before William's arrival and continued to do so as a coastal artillery garrison until 1958. Today, it is one of Britain's most popular historic sites and visitor attractions.

Here is everything you need to know to visit.

The Castle's Origins

When the Romans reached Dover, they probably chose the spot because it was high and defendable with 360-degree views (in good weather). 

It's unclear whether the high plateau the castle is built on was an Iron Age fortress, but archaeologists have found Iron Age artifacts in the area, and though the Romans and the Normans and subsequent military architects have shaped and reworked the land, the bones of an Iron Age Hill Fort or settlement are certainly plausible.

The other features of Dover Castle can be divided into distinct periods. You can spend your day trying to see everything (it's a big place and that's a big job), or you can choose a period that interests you and dive in. 

The Ancient Site

What William the Conqueror found when he chose this high ground above the port were remains of Roman and Anglo Saxon occupation you can still visit today.

  • The PharosThis is the oldest surviving lighthouse in Britain and possibly the world. The Romans arrived in the year 43 and very quickly built the lighthouse to guide their compatriots across the country. It dates from about the year 50. You can tell it's Roman from its construction—layers of round flint rocks sandwiched between double layers of thin red Roman bricks or tiles.There's a low entry on one side of it and you can peer up into it. At one time the Pharos was used as a bell tower for the adjoining church. It may look a bit crumbly, but it is in remarkable shape for a 2,000-year-old building, 
  • The Church of St Mary in Castro was built by the Anglo Saxons in about 630. It was rebuilt in about the year 1,000 and had fallen into ruin when it was restored in the 19th century by Sir Gilbert Scott, practitioner of the neo-Gothic style, architect of the St Pancras Hotel in London, and designer of the Albert Memorial. If it looks a bit Victorian, that's why. Look closely and you will see the round flints in its walls and red Roman bricks—torn from the Pharos—decorating its windows and lintels. The church was the Dover garrison church until 2014, and it still serves the community. In fact, if you are lucky, you might even come upon a wedding there. It's part of the Church of England Diocese of Canterbury and some couples can get married there if they meet certain requirements. If you go inside to admire the Victorian stained glass, spend time looking at the vaults and columns—some of them are original Anglo Saxon structural supports.

The Middle Ages

William the Conqueror didn't build much more than a stockade on a hill before he left to vanquish the rest of Britain, stopping off along the way to found Windsor Castle and the Tower of London and crown himself at Westminster. It was left to his great grandson, Henry II, to build most of the fortress that is now Dover Castle.

Henry II was the king whose outburst let to the murder of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. And he was the father of Richard the Lionheart and King John, who signed the Magna Carta. The castle, with its curtain walls, towers, and turrets was completed two generations later under Henry II's grandson, Henry III.

Here's what you can see of the Medieval Castle:

  • The Great Tower: Inside the Great Tower, six rooms of the Medieval palace have been recreated. Skilled craftsman created the lavish interiors of a palace of Henry II's time, with bright and authentically colored wall hangings and 500 intricately detailed objects and furnishings. To keep things real, there are no signs or information panels to read. Instead, audio visuals around the rooms guide visitors and costumed property stewards are on hand to answer questions. On selected dates, costumed re-enacters, in period character, bring the rooms to life.  
  • The Medieval Tunnels: After King John signed the Magna Carta, he immediately tried to go back on his word. The nobles invited Louis, the son of the King of France, to step in and become king. Louis landed in England in 1216 expecting to march to London to be crowned. But the garrison at Dover Castle, still loyal to King John, rose against him. Louis laid siege to the castle from July to October, doing a great deal of damage. The nobles were able to hold out because of a system of complicated, winding tunnels they created under the castle. Louis tried to take the castle again in 1217, but by then, King John had died, and Dover Castle was still holding firm. He gave up and went home to France. During the age of Napoleon, the tunnels were reinforced and expanded in preparation for another invasion from France. They sheltered 2,000 soldiers. You can climb down into these eerie, winding tunnels to explore them yourself.

The 20th Century

Dover Castle had important roles to play in both World Wars. Here's what you can visit:

  • The WWI Fire Command Post and Port War Signal Station: In the First World War, Dover was declared a fortress garrisoned with 10,000 soldiers and military headquarters in the castle. This new attraction shows the role the castle played in protecting the coast. It offers a panoramic view of the Straits of Dover. Visitors can try their hand at Morse code and learn how to distinguish enemy ships from friendlies. There's an authentic anti-aircraft gun (the only working example left in the world), and volunteers are there to answer all your questions. During the summer, volunteers regularly carry out a re-enacted gun drill.
  • The WWII Underground Hospital: Deep within the chalk of the White Cliffs of Dover, an underground hospital was created for injured troops in 1941. Using sophisticated audio visuals, visitors are presented with realistic sights, sounds, and smells of the operating theater and follow the drama of a young airman fighting for his life. Several other rooms show the underground life of the doctors and nurses.
  • Operation Dynamo: Take a 50-minute guided tour of the secret tunnels to learn about Operation Dynamo, the code name for the greatest rescue operation ever undertaken when the British forces evacuated the beaches of Dunkirk in World War II. Tours leave every 15 to 20 minutes for this underground presentation that uses special effects, projections, and real film footage to bring the heroic Dunkirk rescue operation to life. The tour goes through some of the original rooms of the Army headquarters, fitted out as they were at the time. And the producers of the 2017 film, Dunkirk, have loaned several of the film costumes for this special exhibit. Stop for a 1940s style snack of sandwiches and stews in the underground cafe, and then continue on to an exhibit displaying about 200 years in the secret tunnels, from the Napoleonic era, right through the Cold War.

How to Visit

  • Location: Dover Castle, Castle Hill Road, Dover Kent, CT16 1HU
  • How to Get There: By car, you can get to the entrance on Castle Hill Road (A258) from the A2 to avoid the Channel Port traffic on the A20. There is free parking for 200 cars as well as off-site peak time and special event parking with a free shuttle bus to the Castle. If you're taking a train, the nearest train station is Dover Priory. Check National Rail Enquiries for schedules, prices and booking information. Stagecoach local bus services have several routes that stop near the castle. Use their journey planner to find the best bus for you.
  • When: The castle is open year round, except from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day, for some weekdays during the winter months. Check the website for the seasonal hours and schedules.
  • Cost: Standard admission for all regular attractions, including the tunnels, is 20 pounds for adults. Child, senior, and student prices are available, and a family ticket for two adults and up to three children costs 50 pounds. Gift Aid prices are slightly higher. 

What Else is Nearby

A visit to Dover Castle will probably fill a whole day and leave you exhausted, but if you are still hungry for more, these attractions are not far.

  • Take a dramatic clifftop walk across the White Cliffs of Dover on National Trust pathways.
  • Visit some of Henry VIII's round-towered artillery fortifications. Both Walmer Castle and Deal Castle are about seven miles away and are great examples of Henry's Tudor forts.
  • Drive or cycle to the pretty village of St. Margaret's at Cliffe, about 3.5 miles away across the cliffs and through National Trust land on National Cycle Route 1. The village is full of lovely 16th and 17th century cottages, has an interesting church to explore, and also has a very nice pub, the White Cliffs Hotel and the Cliffe Pub and Kitchen where you can have a great meal and spend the night.