When your MSC cruise takes you to Dover, by far the most interesting of the port’s attractions is the castle. Also not to be missed is a walk along the legendary White Cliffs, which dominate the town and have long been a source of inspiration for lovers, travellers and soldiers sailing off to war.
It was in 1168, a century after the Conquest, that the Normans constructed the keep that now presides over the bulk of Dover Castle, a superbly positioned defensive complex that was in continuous use as a military installation until the 1980s. Much earlier, the Romans had put Dover on the map when they chose the harbour as the base for their northern fleet, and erected a lighthouse here to guide the ships into the river mouth.
Beside the chunky hexagonal remains of this stands a Saxon-built church, St Mary-in-Castro, dating from the seventh century. Further up the hill is the impressive, well-preserved Great Tower, built by Henry II as a palace. Inside, Henry’s opulent royal court has been painstakingly re-created; everything from the pots and pans in the kitchen to the tapestries in the Kings Chamber has been meticulously researched and reproduced using, where possible, the materials and methods of the time.
Forty miles north-west of Dover, MSC Northern Europe cruises also offer excursions to Leeds Castle, which more closely resembles a fairy-tale palace than a defensively efficient fortress. Work on the castle began around 1120, half on an island in the middle of a lake and half on the mainland surrounded by landscaped parkland.
Following centuries of regal and noble ownership (and, less glamorously, service as a prison) the castle now hosts conferences and sporting and cultural events, while the grounds hold a fine aviary with some superb and colourful exotic specimens, as well as manicured gardens and a mildly challenging maze.