A real cliff hanger

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Mari Nicholson guides visitors round Dover Castle and its surrounding attractions

History really comes alive as you walk through the tunnels in the white cliffs of Dover, passing through those used as hospitals and standing on the platform from which Churchill watched the ships set out for the evacuation of Dunkirk. It's even better if you've organised a 1940s-style meal in the tunnels the night before (eating from mess tins) and listening to the band play songs of the Second World War.

The White Cliffs Experience covers English history from a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age boat in Dover Museum, to Walmer Castle, where Wellington's boots are on display, and Deal Castle right on the seafront facing France. There is also a walk on the battlements of Dover Castle and another through Sandwich, where visitors are accosted by actors dressed in historic clothes as witch-hunters, wife beaters, smugglers, and the Herring Counter (40,000 herrings had to be paid by fishermen to Henry II).

Dover Castle, for centuries England's first defence against invaders, is guaranteed to engage students at all levels. Sue Grantham, a teacher from Chipping Norton School, who has been visiting the area for seven years with key stage 3 pupils, spoke of her pupils' enthusiasm for the medieval tunnels and especially praised the Siege Trail, an atmospheric presentation of the siege by the French in 1216 which uses the latest light, film and sound technology. The smell of smoke from burning timbers and the desperate cries of men in combat, go down well with the pupils.

There are more modern tunnels in the castle too, and they offer an insight into the realities of life in wartime Britain. In 1939, the old Georgian barrack tunnels under the cliffs, were adapted for war command with operations rooms, a hospital and space for up to 10,500 troops. In 1940, Vice-Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey and Sir Winston Churchill stood in the war ops room and masterminded the evacuation of 338,000 troops from Dunkirk. These rooms with original switchboards and telephones, charts and maps, are part of the popular Secret Tunnel tour. The special effects throughout the tour leave little to the imagination: dim lights, the drone of bombers, ghostly footsteps and whispering voices down the corridors, the clang of ambulance bells, and in the hospital bloodied bandages and the groans of wounded men.

There's more to Dover Castle than tunnels, however. Walk the battlements which give stunning views over the castle's defences and surrounding areas, check out the state apartments and the chapel of Thomas ... Becket.

Built in 1540 as part of Henry VIII's chain of coastal defences, nearby Walmer Castle is today more stately home than castle, but it has some intriguing artefacts on display. They include the original Wellington boots, made in 1816 for the duke, one time resident of the castle. And see his false teeth (walrus ivory set in gold on a wooden frame) and hear the story of how his hearse overturned at his funeral.

Alternatively, take a bite of Sandwich and learn how the first fast food item came about. Join the Trail of Blood and the Ghost Walk in a stroll through twisting alleys. It's all part of the White Cliffs Experience.

Dover Museum pound;1. 75 adults, 95p child. Tel: 01304-201066, www.dover.gov.ukmuseum

Walmer Castle pound;5 adults, concessions pound;3.80, 15 per cent group discount. Tel: 01304 364388, Sandwich Performances on Friday, or book in advance. Tel: 01304 369576

Dover Castle

pound;7.50 adults, concessions pound;5.60, 15 per cent group discount. Nearest station Dover Priory, connecting buses from station Stagecoach 901. Tel: 01304 201628

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