Dover Castle - Underground Workings
One of my earliest subterranian memories is of a family trip to Dover Castle as a lad of about 10. On learning that there were underground passages to explore I am told I made myself a thorough nuisance until allowed to inspect them.
The "underground works" are located at the Northernmost extent of the castle and are of two periods. They were initially built by Hubert de Burgh after the siege of 1216 and were adapted in 1801-3 by Georgian engineers. Generally speaking, all exposed chalk and stonework dates back to 1216, the brickwork being of Georgian origin.
Descending a short spiral staircase a gradually descending chalk passage is entered. Passing over a grill in the floor, revealing cavities below, access to the base of St.Johns Tower, a circular construction of immense wall thickness is gained. This allows access to a "Caponier" spanning the castle moat at two levels. The lower level giving entry into the "Redan", a triangular fortification lying at the Northernmost point of the castle. From here access to "sally ports" was possible allowing troops to surprise or outflank those holding the castle at seige. Remotely operated Napoleonic doorways can still be seen here.
Even if enemy troops were able to penetrate these doors it would have been possible to block their entry into the main castle. Retreating troops would have signalled to their compatriots to drop a heavy iron clad door from the upper gallery of the Caponier, constructed on similar lines to a sluice gate.
Having investigated all of the above my Father convinced me that there were no further tunnels to explore, and reluctantly I had to retrace my steps back to the surface. However on our ascent of the initial chalk passage, in the gloom, an opening was just apparent at about waist height. As if to shut me up once and for all I was duly lifted up and inserted into the low tunnel. With a great deal of excitement and not a little fear, I advanced slowly up the ascending tunnel, groping in the darkness and half expecting some awful trap for the unwary such as a trick drawbridge or pit! Reaching a sharp turn to the left the passage began ascending more steeply and I found myself in total darkness. Although keen to continue exploration I could not overcome my fear of an accident and so in a state of some excitement had to retrace my steps and muse on where this passage might lead. I felt as though I had just begun some real exploration!
The memory of that excursion made a lasting impression on me and the desire to return to Dover with an adequate light, to continue investigations, was born. In fact it was only last Summer when the opportunity arose, and I found myself once more in the chalk beneath the castle, with Petzl Zoom in pocket and a tolerant companion. Again it was necessary to conclude all other investigations before I found myself beside the window entrance to the mystery passage once more. Feeling more than a little conspicuous among all the other grockles I clambered into the passage and advanced for what must have been all of about 15ft before the left hand bend was encountered. On looking around the corner the passage concluded after about a further 8ft at a dead end. I had waited over 20 years to push the passage for all of about 3ft!
All was not lost however, as having paid our œ5 day fee to enter the castle grounds we were now able to explore the rest of the castle. Perhaps the only other features worthy of mention in a caving sporadical would be the well in the castle keep. This was originally 460ft deep, of small diameter and perfectly round. Its construction must have been a considerable challenge. It now sports an electric cable hanging down its centre with a light every 20ft or so. These are illuminated one at a time in sequence so that the eye is gradually drawn ever deeper to the bottom and gives an excellent effect. A similar technique could well be employed to display long cave passages!
Dover Castle - Hellfire Corner
Also now included in the entrance fee is the opportunity to visit "Hellfire Corner" - the large complex of military tunnels, some of which date back to Napoleonic times. The tunnel complex extends for some 3.5Km on 3 levels and about 1/2Km is open for the public to tour under escort.
Access to the tunnels is gained via a steeply descending path on the cliff edge giving access to a wide balustrade overlooking the channel. Two main sets of doors lead into the chalk from here and give access to a small cafe, lavatories and museum depicting the sequence of events leading up to the retreat from Dunkirk. In fact it was from these very tunnels that the whole exercise was orchestrated.
On joining one of the guided tours you are first lead to a small cinema for a short film and movietone newsreel describing the Dunkirk retreat. Following this you are lead to a replicated underground telephone exchange. Some members of the public that worked here as operators have authenticated the equipment and its layout as recreated by English Heritage. Another gallery has been refitted with identical telephone switchgear to that originally in use. Apparently BT had no problem providing this!
Anyone interested in Heating and Ventilating systems will doubtless be fascinated by the archaic ventilation ducting systems, some of which were salvaged from warships.
A fine 3-Dimensional model of the tunnel complex is on display which clearly depicts the 3 separate levels.
All in all, English Heritage have done a good job restoring what they already have. When the complex was decommissioned in the early eighties the MOD virtually stripped the whole site. What is now presented is a result of painstaking interviews, research and donations as no official accounts of staff levels, functions etc. are available. English Heritage should be commended on what they have already achieved and hopefully they will be able to open up further sections of the complex in the future.
I did make tentative enquiries about arranging a trip for "enthusiasts" to visit other sections. The guide did not know of any such trips having been arranged in the past but suggested that I should write to the General Manager of the castle to enquire. She thought it would be unlikely that access would be granted since recently a man broke into the normally inaccessible sections and managed to break his leg.
If you are at all interested in Castles, tunnels, industrial archaeology etc. I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Dover. Allow the best part of a day to visit the castle itself - it costs £5 per person and parking within the castle is free. A torch will be found useful within "Hellfire Corner" for peering into otherwise inaccessible tunnels.