If the stiff breeze gusting in from the Channel wasn’t chilly enough, there are plenty of characters on tonight’s tour of Dover Castle ready to give us the shivers. If they decide to show up.
Tramping up the steps of the Keep, we peer into the forebuiliding where a hooded figure has been seen at prayer. Inside, the Presents Chamber is the haunt of the ‘Scarlet Lady’ – thought to be the wife of Charles I. The lower half of a guardsman is known to patrol the King’s bed chamber. No sign of the resident ghosts tonight, but subdued silence reigns as we’re shown inscriptions scratched on the walls by prisoners housed here during the Napoleonic Wars. Amid the hearts and names of sweethearts is a chilling plea: Lord deliver me from this place.””
With origins dating back to the Iron Age, Dover Castle – strategically positioned overlooking the shortest sea crossing between England and continental Europe – has a longer history than any other fortress in England. In 1066 Anglo-Saxon fortifications here were strengthened by William of Normandy, and rebuilt in the 1180s by Henry II with the addition of the imposing keep and a series of concentric defences. It’s out to these we now walk, via the ramparts on which thousands died in the ‘siege of 1216’.
Two thousand years’ worth of dead people make for plenty of ghosts. Dover Castle has been visited by numerous paranormal researchers and was recently home for the night for athlete Colin Jackson, glamour girl Jo Guest and other semi-celebrities for an episode of reality show I’m Famous And Frightened. It’s hard to sympathise with a bunch of wimpering C-listers, but as we make our way down the gloomy ramp of St John’s Tower, it’s impossible not to concur with their decision that this was one of the most dreadful places”.
At Fitzwilliam’s Gate, we pause in the moonlight as our guide, historian Steve Friedrich, tells us about the Napoleonic drummer boy that haunts the spot – headless, naturally. Heading out of Perrill’s Gate, we press an ear to the masonry, listening for the howls of the dog walled up here alive with its owner, a woman accused of witchcraft.
Added to over the centuries, the castle’s military role continued into the 20th century, when the chalk cliffs on which it stands were excavated to house an underground hospital and the command centre used for the Dunkirk evacuation in World War II. Preserved as they were during wartime, it’s fascinating to see the mess room, dormitories, wards, operating room and anti-aircraft operations centre – except it’s past midnight now, the tunnels are deserted, and it’s very eerie.
Steve has had a few experiences of his own down here.
“One day I was closing up and saw a figure standing by that table – like an after-image,” he says. “I’m not going to say it was a ghost but I don’t know what it was. Some things can be explained – low booms from lorries or cars, for example – but some things can’t. Lots of people have felt their hair being stroked, or someone brushing past them down here. If you’re in the way they’ll barge past you.”
Our tour ends in the telephone repeater room, where one group recently witnessed a figure glide along the corridor of switches and cables and straight through a female visitor. Again, there’s a chill to the place that’s hard to describe but difficult to deny. A member of our own party confesses that last time she was in this room, her mobile phone began to ring – deep inside an underground bunker. A hush falls as we stare at the antiquated equipment. It stays silent, and so do we.
So Dover Castle’s ghosts haven’t put in an appearance tonight – or have they? Our tired, emotional and thoroughly freaked-out group aren’t so sure. A digital photo taken at Fitzwilliam’s Gate appears to be covered in patches of white mist – ‘orbs’, believed by some to be ghosts in the form of balls of light. Thinking back, it seems that the moment the photograph was taken was when someone’s tape recorder suddenly stopped working and another fell to the floor out of its owner’s hand.
Despite all his experiences, Steve remains sceptical.
“I’m a bit of a cynic – I’m inclined to believe it’s more of an energy field,” he says. “If you consider all the things that have happened here, it’s bound to leave an imprint.”
It sounds more plausible. But before leaving, I can’t help but cast a final lingering final glance up at the window of the Keep. No sign of the Scarlet Lady or any other supernatural resident. Ghosts don’t exist after all. So why am I shuddering?
n Dover Castle (01304-211 067) is open 10am-4pm daily (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays until February 1); admission price (£8.50/£6.40 concessions) includes a tour of the Secret Wartime Tunnels.
For more information on Dover Castle, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.”