We awoke to grey skies, rain and thunder on our first morning in Dover. No matter, we were going deep within the rocks of the famous white cliffs in the tunnels below Dover Castle – a bit of adverse weather would make no difference down there. Just minutes from the town – you can see the sprawling hilltop castle from below, the car-park was almost full when we arrived at 10.00 am. An English Heritage site meant free entrance for us as members, we sorted our tickets and headed straight to the Secret Wartime Tunnels. These are the biggest draw of the castle, whatever the weather it is a good idea to visit them first.
We found a long queue at the entrance but only waited fifteen minutes to go inside. These chalk hewn passageways were first excavated during the Napoleonic Wars and then expanded to form a command post and hospital in World War II. The fifty minute tour runs every twenty minutes, visitors enjoy staggered entrance to the tunnels to ensure everyone gets the full benefit of the experience. Inside they tell the story of Operation Dynamo – one of Britain’s most famous wartime operations. Directed from this very place in 1940, we heard how hundreds of thousands of men were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. We passed through a whole series of rooms, the actual army headquarters and furnished as they were at the time, different parts of the story were told in different rooms. Powerful and vivid they used a mixture of original news reels, some recordings and dramatic special effects here and there. The climax in the very last room was incredible. Sights and sounds of the mission were projected onto the walls of the tunnels, full of drama and tension it was so well done – spine tingling stuff.
When we came out we queued straightaway for the Underground Hospital Tour, a different set of tunnels and a different story. This is a shorter experience with more people on the tour (about 30) and it lasted around twenty minutes. The hospital was built in 1941/42 as a medical dressing station for injured troops and is also housed in the tunnels in the white cliffs. Again we experienced the sights, sounds and even smells of the hospital and the operating theatre – not always pleasant but definitely gripping.
You walk while the story of an injured pilot fighting for his life is played overhead. Very vivid and dramatic, Son was a bit freaked out in parts but wouldn’t have missed the experience. We walked through the kitchens, dormitories, hospital and finally the operating theatre as the story was told. Lots to look at, smells of the time, flickering lights and air raid sirens sounding sporadically – it was very intense and felt as if you had stepped right back in time to a grim and frightening place. Apparently many people who did work in this hospital at that time went on to suffer severe depression – not hard at all to see why.
Tour complete we found ourselves emerging above ground one level higher than where we started. The experience was moving and memorable but I was relieved to be back in the open again after all the tension and harrowing stories we had heard. The Admiralty Lookout was fascinating – the actual place where officers kept watch over the Channel. More historical artefacts to look at as well as great views. Plenty of wide open space as well – Son was pleased about that – battlements, military items to check out but more importantly stacks of room to run, climb and let off steam. The perfect antidote to an interesting but sobering time in those tunnels.