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We had one extra day in Eng­land. I had always want­ed to see more of the Unit­ed King­dom than just the Lon­don area. And can I tell you a secret? I’d always want­ed to see an old cas­tle. When I say cas­tle, I don’t mean the sophis­ti­cat­ed splen­dor of Wind­sor or the crowd­ed tourist lines at the Tow­er of Lon­don (although both of those places are won­der­ful). My inner child always want­ed to see the old ruins of a cas­tle on a lush green hill­side, a place where mag­ic could hap­pen, a place for princess­es in flow­ing dresses.

So I did what any aspir­ing princess would do. I used Google. I searched for every cas­tle with­in an easy one-day trip from Lon­don, and one, in par­tic­u­lar, caught my eye.

 

 

 

Why Dover, U.K.

 

When I saw images of Dover Castle’s hill­top perch above the Eng­lish Chan­nel, I was intrigued. On the south­east coast of Eng­land, Dover is known for its tow­er­ing, white chalk cliffs and hun­dreds of years as a major port. But what sealed the deal for our his­to­ry-lov­ing fam­i­ly was the area’s essen­tial role in World War II. Best of all, Lon­don to Dover is a short, one- or two-hour train ride, mak­ing a vis­it easy to fit into our schedule.

Although we had rid­den many trains by that point in our trip, we still enjoyed the ride to Dover with its view of the Kent coun­try­side, includ­ing oast hous­es and sur­prise cas­tles and cathe­drals. We were able to see the ruins of Can­ter­bury Cas­tle just out­side the win­dow as the train sped past, with Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral in the distance.

 

Cen­turies of his­to­ry made vis­it­ing Dover Cas­tle an easy choice for our fam­i­ly. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.

 

Arriving in Dover

 

When we got off the train at Dover Pri­o­ry Sta­tion, we could see Dover Cas­tle on a hill in the dis­tance, over­look­ing the city. I gazed at it and thought, “We TOTALLY can walk that!” So walk it we did, mov­ing in a gen­er­al direc­tion toward the cas­tle and going through the down­town area of Dover. Signs for the cas­tle led us to a forest­ed hill and up end­less steep steps. Even­tu­al­ly, we emerged through the trees at the tick­et area, where nor­mal peo­ple dri­ve up in their cars and receive wrist­bands. The slight­ly sur­prised gate­keep­ers hap­pi­ly sold us wrist­bands as well, but I may have lost my license to choose fam­i­ly walk­ing routes. All in all, it was just over a mile walk, but the steep uphill climb would be tough for many fam­i­lies, who might pre­fer to take a taxi or bus from the cen­ter of town. Our route took us to the small Canon’s gate entrance to the cas­tle; alter­na­tive walk­ing routes and bus drop-off loca­tions will take vis­i­tors to the larg­er Con­sta­ble’s gate.

 

Just a small sec­tion of the steps I made every­one climb to reach the cas­tle. And then we had to climb back down. I’m fired as the fam­i­ly nav­i­ga­tor. Pho­to by Christy Nicholson.

 

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The World War II Connection

 

After walk­ing up a paved path­way to the entry area for the cas­tle, we found our­selves gaz­ing across the Eng­lish Chan­nel. It was hard to tear our­selves away from that beau­ti­ful view to see every­thing else. We decid­ed to start our time at Dover Cas­tle with a tour of the under­ground tun­nels used dur­ing World War II, after the help­ful staff gave us a hint about them — if the area’s World War II his­to­ry is your pri­or­i­ty, then make the under­ground hos­pi­tal and the Oper­a­tion Dynamo tours your first stops. The timed entry and lim­it­ed capac­i­ty of the tun­nels require care­ful plan­ning, and the last tours of the day will be filled or have long wait times.

Dover is known for its role in World War II and the Bat­tle of Britain, and the tun­nel tours, with light­ing and sound effects, are designed to recre­ate that time. My favorite parts of the tour, though, were the local employ­ees who shared more about the his­toric events. I asked one guide if any ves­sels from the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion land­ed near­by, and he ges­tured up and down the coast, say­ing “Every­where.” The guides also told us that Dover Cas­tle was used as an active part of Eng­land’s defens­es from its estab­lish­ment in the 11th and 12th cen­turies through the 1950s. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, nurs­es actu­al­ly stayed inside the Great Tow­er to stay safe from shelling.

 

When you have this view, why go any­where else? We loved see­ing the coast of France in the dis­tance. Pho­to by Christy Nicholson.

 

Dover Castle

 

After our tun­nel tour, we walked up to the main part of Dover Cas­tle and passed through sev­er­al stone gates to reach the inner part of the strong­hold. We were tempt­ed by the sight of the Great Tow­er and walked inside to start exploring.

 

In hind­sight, I rec­om­mend that fam­i­lies start first in Arthur’s Hall, locat­ed in the walls sur­round­ing the Great Tow­er. There won’t be many infor­ma­tion­al signs inside the tow­er itself, but the exhi­bi­tion in Arthur’s Hall has plen­ty of pic­tures, dia­grams, and time­lines to give help­ful background.

 

After the his­to­ry les­son, you’ll be ready to tour the Great Tow­er, the keep of the cas­tle. The cen­turies-old tow­er is full of fur­ni­ture, props, and even holo­grams to show what life would have been like when the cas­tle was built in the 1100s. While the employ­ees scat­tered through­out the tow­er do not offer guid­ed tours, they are hap­py to answer ques­tions and explain any­thing you see (we asked one about the graf­fi­ti we found on a wall, and he explained that it was from French pris­on­ers in the 19th cen­tu­ry!). On week­ends dur­ing busy sea­sons, Dover Cas­tle invites actors for jousts, demon­stra­tions, and reen­act­ments to bring the cas­tle to life.

Before leav­ing the Great Tow­er, be sure to climb all the way to the very top, where you will find a breath­tak­ing view of the cas­tle grounds, Dover, and the Eng­lish Chan­nel. It is so worth the climb!

 

Pro-Tip: If you hope to vis­it sev­er­al his­toric land­marks in Eng­land, be sure to con­sid­er an Eng­lish Her­itage over­seas vis­i­tor pass, which offers admis­sion to over 100 sites across England. 

 

 

The keep, or Great Tow­er, of Dover Cas­tle is dec­o­rat­ed to show how it would have been fur­nished dur­ing the reign of Hen­ry II. Pho­to by Christy Nicholson.

 

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The Castle Grounds

 

After you see the main part of the cas­tle, there’s plen­ty more to explore. The out­er walls of the cas­tle have stone tow­ers and small pas­sages with the slight­ly ram­shackle feel of 1,000-year-old struc­tures. Extra brave explor­ers can climb into the dark medieval tun­nels that were used for defense in the 1200s. Walk along the bat­tle­ments to look out over the for­mer moat or to find the World War II-era anti-air­craft guns. (Dur­ing our walk along the grounds, we were lucky enough to spy a fox roam­ing the hills.)

Dover Cas­tle is also home to an ancient Roman light­house, built in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry. The light­house, or Pharos, is the tallest remain­ing Roman struc­ture in Eng­land and one of only three Roman light­hous­es left in the world. Next to the light­house is the Church of St. Mary-in-Cas­tro, which was orig­i­nal­ly built by the Anglo-Sax­ons around 1000 A.D. The build­ing has been restored sev­er­al times, most notably in the 1800s after it had been used for coal stor­age. The church still holds Sun­day ser­vices for mem­bers of the community.

The cas­tle grounds are fam­i­ly-friend­ly, with bath­rooms and food options locat­ed in sev­er­al areas. We enjoyed eat­ing in the Great Tow­er Cafe, locat­ed in the walls of the cas­tle, where kids’ meals and a table full of desserts helped us feel ready for more exploring.

 

 

Par­ents will want to keep a close eye on younger chil­dren near the steep hills and cliffs around the out­er walls. How­ev­er, the grassy court­yard sur­round­ing the Great Tow­er offers flat ground and a most­ly enclosed space that is great for tiny travelers.

 

 

After wind­ing through under­ground pas­sages and walk­ing across bat­tle­ments, we still had more of the cas­tle to dis­cov­er. Pho­to by Christy Nicholson.

 

 

Exploring Dover

 

After the cas­tle closed and we climbed back down the giant hill, we decid­ed to explore Dover a bit before walk­ing back to the train sta­tion. As we wan­dered through the town, there were sur­pris­es around every street cor­ner. One of my favorite finds was a tiny, gor­geous alley­way called Hubert’s Pas­sage, which led to the remains of an ancient church. Built in the 11th cen­tu­ry, St. James’ Church was destroyed in World War II. Today it is pre­served as a ruin, with grass grow­ing amidst the stone archways.

Next, we fol­lowed maps on our phones to walk to the water­front, where we each took our turn dip­ping our fin­gers into the Eng­lish Chan­nel. Want­i­ng to give our­selves plen­ty of time to catch our train back to Lon­don, we then decid­ed to head back to the train sta­tion. First, though, we took a few moments to stop at a Cos­ta (think Eng­lish Star­bucks) for hot choco­late and mince­meat pie.

If we had more time, I would have loved to see the oth­er things to do in Dover, like the murals at the Roman Paint­ed House or the Bronze Age Boat in the Dover Muse­um. And while we were on top of the famous white cliffs of Dover when explor­ing Dover Cas­tle, we could only see a small bit of the chalk walls from the cas­tle or the beach (although I did get a piece of chalk stuck in my boot). To see more of the cliffs, vis­i­tors can take a walk­ing tour, book a boat ride, or even take a fer­ry to and from France. If you want to eat din­ner before head­ing back to Lon­don, try The White Horse pub near St. James Church.

 

This charm­ing sign led us to the gor­geous ruins of an ancient church. Pho­to by Christy Nicholson.

 

 

 

 

When You Go

 

The train from Lon­don to Dover departs from St. Pan­cras Inter­na­tion­al. Sev­er­al trains run from Lon­don to Dover through­out the day, includ­ing express routes that take just over an hour. Our train left ear­ly in the morn­ing, which was a won­der­ful time to take a pic­ture at the usu­al­ly-crowd­ed Plat­form 9 ¾ at neigh­bor­ing King’s Cross Sta­tion. (Also, the exte­ri­or of St. Pan­cras is fea­tured in the fly­ing car scene of Har­ry Pot­ter and the Cham­ber of Secrets, so young wiz­ards and witch­es will have fun with that stop.)

We had con­sid­ered oth­er day trips from Lon­don, includ­ing Stone­henge and Oxford, but I’m so glad we chose Dover. It was exact­ly the adven­ture our fam­i­ly need­ed to fin­ish out a won­der­ful trip to the U.K.

 

Christy Nichol­son is a writer, edi­tor, and recov­er­ing per­fec­tion­ist from Nashville, Ten­nessee. When not trav­el­ing with fam­i­ly, she enjoys cozy days at home read­ing, gar­den­ing, mak­ing music, and wran­gling two awe­some kids. Christy writes at Any-Worth.com about trav­el and sus­tain­able living. 

 

 

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