Recently early spring bank holidays have found trips to Hastings but we fancied a change of scene. That led to a different bit of coast, in the old port of Dover. It was a short trip, for nothing seems to stay in Dover for long.
The train journey down was surprisingly long but uneventful. At least we arrived to decent weather and, lightly loaded with the minimum of luggage, we went for a wander. We were armed with a guide around town (local copy) and decided to follow its path to see what Dover had to offer.
The Historic Centre
The trail started by leading us down from the station to a war memorial outside the town council offices and the town hall, incorporating the impressive remains of the Maison Dieu. The building today looks like some sort of overgrown church, complete with a bell outside (the Zeebruger Bell, a gift from Belgium to remember a World War 1 raid). There are little cannons outside and the whole thing feels historic but, perhaps not helped by the busy road running outside, has the feel of being a bit forgotten.
Our guide sheet led us back round on ourself a little, to Dover College, which is housed in parts in the remains of the Priory which these days is best remembered in the name of the railway station. It’s a shame all we could do was stare through the railings.
The trail then completed a little circle, bringing us to what may be the smallest regularly used church in England. The Chapel of St Edmund is a tiny little thing, squatting in a hole between much larger buildings, barely big enough it seemed from the outside to contain a priest and parishioner. We went down the little alley by its side following our map towards the town centre. It’s when wandering down the shopping centre of the town that the strangeness of Dover became evident. It’s not that the shops and streets were empty it’s just they had a tired feel, and none of the buzz of somewhere like Hastings. For all the thousands of people moving through the world’s busiest passenger port it seems they do just that—pass through, the town a little blip between here and there it’s most famous attraction, those towering white cliffs, best appreciated when not there but at sea, coming or going.
We took the little detour suggested to call into Pencester Gardens. It seemed busy enough and the views were as good as promised, with the castle looming over the town in the distance. It was there that we also discovered the River Dour still runs through Dover, though the sight from the gardens was more of a drinking den then the pleasant area it might be. Presumably the promised river trail leads through and over the many concrete culverts and bridges that seem to hide the river from sight in the rest of the town.
A Church, Romans, And A Pub
Heading back down the main street we shuffled the order of the guide slightly, coming earlier than we should to St Mary’s Church. Visible as we walked down the street its distinctive pointed roof atop the tower looked like a comical hat, leading us to dub it the party church. Its actually quite an interesting building, its tower showing changing Norman style through its two stages of construction. There’s also a sundial mounted high up, and a pretty, if small, churchyard.
We then walked up to the previous item on the tour, the Roman Painted House. It probably says a lot about Dover that what is supposedly a major tourist attraction, with obvious historic significance, is housed in a what looks like a temporary hut sandwiched between a very busy road and a dirty back alley. As Roman history isn’t my thing at all I left Heather there (it is her thing) and went to wait in the local Wetherspoons. After Heather’s Roman exploration the pub also managed to furnish lunch before we continued on our Dover tour. This led down to the market square.
The Thing That Isn’t There, The Boat You Can’t See, And A Tidy Ruin
Our guide started in Market Square talking about St Martin Le Grand and we looked round a moment before realising it went on to say that it is no longer there, the site now being a bank. There are a few low ruins to be seen round the back of the bank, once you realise where to look. The Market Hall itself is still there, now the town’s museum and visitor information centre. The main attraction of the museum is a Bronze Age boat, discovered nearby in the 1990s and moved for display. Unfortunately the need to keep in a controlled environment (and therefore in a glass box) with careful lighting actually makes the thing pretty difficult to see! At least the shop in the tourist info sold us nice mementos (and a postcard with a better view of the boat).
Heading downhill towards the sea the guide took us past a listed Georgian house to Old St James’ Church, describing it as preserved as a “tidy ruin” which we couldn’t help but hear read in a Welsh accent. The actual church is indeed a neat little ruin of partial walls with a Victorian restoration of a Norman style doorway (there is an actual, if damaged, Norman doorway to the side). The arch leads into an overgrown interior that gives little sense of the church space, which was in a much fairer state of repair, and more substantial than its appearance now reveals, until damaged in both world wars.
Memorials By The Sea
Finally reaching the sea we were guided along the coast in front of the grand, if downtrodden, curve of Waterloo Crescent. There were numerous memorials, mainly war related, though to be honest they began to fade into one another. The sun was shining however so it was a pleasant stroll along the seaside, though it was strangely devoid of even a single shop. There were a couple of pieces of art, the most attractive being a representation of the infamous channel swimmers (possibly heading to the White Horse which we would visit later). Just a busy port, nothing to see here. At the far end of the crescent, before reaching the marina, there seemed to be a lot of regeneration work going on.
We turned there and made our way back along the sea towards our bed for the night, which uncomfortably turned out not to be quite en suite but at least had private bathrooms. It also had, for reasons beyond our knowledge, a metre rule propped against the wall of our room.
A Crane, A Shaft, And Finding Dinner
We were soon back out the rear door though, and walking beneath the towering chalk cliffs, pierced by windows and outlooks for the war tunnels riddling them above. We wandered around the coast some more, finding our way around the marina. Our guide led us to a fine old swan-necked crane standing idol among the quiet boats. From there (once we’d found our way back out the marina) we dodged across the road to the bottom of the grand shaft, a triple spiral staircase leading up the cliffs to the Western Heights, a huge fortification high on the cliffs above. Sadly as close as we could get was the gate some distance from the entrance.
By that point we were a bit worn out with all the wandering around and so went for a rest in one of the few bars we could find, Cullin’s Yard. It has a strange little vibe going in the bar area, with a restaurant area that is probably nicer in the summer sun. Our thoughts were turning to dinner and so after some Googling headed up the hill to The Allotment. Disappointingly that turned out to have no room, which was sad given it looked really nice. Trying to skip yet another Wetherspoons we headed to Hythe Bay by the sea. Given how quiet the whole area seemed it was a surprise to find them also fully booked. In semi-desperation we ended up back at Cullin’s. Annoyingly that meant enduring jazz during dinner (which also, in the end, made me feel a bit ill).
Tired we headed back towards the B&B, first calling into the lovely White Horse pub, whose decor consists mainly of the signatures of channel swimmers recording their achievement. We really were tired though, so finally to bed.
A Hill And A Queue
The real reason for going to Dover was, of course, not for its vibrant seaside vibe but to visit the one tourist attraction it most definitely has—the castle. Getting up there was a bit of trek, given that our night’s bed was at the bottom of the cliffs on which it sits. We pushed ourselves up the steep hill though, climbing the stairs at the end of the path to reach the little ticket hut outside the castle entrance.
Dover castle site is probably the largest I’ve been to (the expanse of Scarborough comes to mind, and the open field of Richmond). Castles tend to lose much of their outer reaches to development over time but Dover’s long history of being continually used for defence means that hasn’t happened. That constant use also means its something of a jumble of bits of history at times obscuring each other. It was appropriate we entered through the Canon’s Gate, a later breach in the medieval wall. Coming in at the low point of the enclosure it was actually difficult to imagine being within such an ancient site. There are large earthworks but these are later, as evidenced by the large artillery guns. The heart of the castle wasn’t even visible beyond hills and other buildings.
We had actually came in near the cliff edge and the twentieth century war tunnels. We were quite early in the day but already the queue to go on a tour of those was running to nearly an hour. We decided to pass and make do with a visit to the hospital tunnels, a much shorter queue of moments getting us onto a tour. I’m sure Heather enjoyed it more than I; it isn’t a period of history which grabs me, and I’ve never liked the style of dramatic voices acting out a scene which may have been taking place. Not to mention my general dislike of guided tours to start with. After what seemed far too long we did emerge up a cool double spiral staircase though.
A Hero Of The Day
After enjoying the fine views of the town, harbour and English Channel from the old fire command centre we headed up the hill towards the part which was getting me excited. Coming round a corner to Colton’s Gate one isn’t disappointed, suddenly leaving almost modern warfare behind for something from a much earlier age. The keep rises up in front, with the inner bailey walls protecting it, the gateway itself showing the strength of the castle. Before exploring there though there was entertainment to be had on the green just outside the inner walls. There the crowds were massed awaiting the hero of the day, St George. First the villagers arrived, to a backdrop of awful jokes from our narrator, gallumping round the green. An evil Frenchman (the old enemy, though I wonder how many of the crowd had popped over the channel for the day) arrived to harry them. The great hero of England arrived to protect them, only to be seen of by the horrid villain before being called back by the will of the crowd. George valiantly returned, and this time saw of the dodgy Frenchman to rescue the villagers. There was still action to be had though, for what is St George without a dragon? The dragon worrying our friendly villagers required George’s return, but he quickly defeated it, saving the villagers and showing his true heroism!
By the end of that adventure we were hungry so headed for lunch in a typically chaotic cafe (English Heritage don’t seem to handle the concept very well—their cafe on every site always seems to have too few seats, unlabelled food, and harried staff).
Up The Tower
The great tower of the castle was calling to us all through lunch so after a walk around the outside and quick look at the associated exhibition we entered the keep, heading into the forebuilding. Not surprisingly there’s a nice little chapel in the entranceway to the castle, dedicated out of guilt to Thomas Becket. The main tower is split by a cross wall into two large halls at each level, with staircases linking the levels in two of the corners. As we criss-crossed up and down the keep there were chambers made out for a feast, or guests, or the King’s chamber where we had fun sitting on the thrones. There are smaller rooms off the side to explore but eventually we made it to the top.
The views from the roof are spectacular and show what a strong position the castle holds—though I’m not sure they would have been looking out at the overflow car park in a field! Still the views the other way show the commanding overview of the harbour far below, as well as over the town crowded close. And of course the old enemy (or friend) of France can been seen looming in the distance across the channel. We enjoyed the wind and the sun for a while before heading back down to terra firma.
A Lighthouse, A Church And A Gate
Heading away from what might be considered castle proper we went to explore what is the oldest structure on site, the Roman lighthouse or Pharos, now standing beside a little church. The lighthouse is a strange, now empty, tower, the demise of birds and echoes. Standing inside the now hollow core is a strange feeling of solitude, possibly shared with the keepers of long ago.
The church beside the Pharos is small but neatly formed, much rebuilt over the years to serve the various incarnations of castle life. It’s quiet inside, a serene escape from the busy bank holiday crowd just a short walk outside. It’s a good place to rest, away from the bustle.
Walking across the high banks around the church and lighthouse we headed back to those crowds to see more of the true castle. Circling the keep again to head out the impressive King’s Gate. This stands complete with a barbican, making a grand spectacle as the way into the inner bailey. It’s also surprisingly high above the outside, forcing us to descend a modern staircase to get back to level ground. We were about to get a lot lower though.
Some More Tunnels
From beneath the barbican we descended into a truly remarkable construction. In the early thirteenth century the castle’s defences were remodelled. What had been a main gateway was blocked and a spur thrust out, through the ditch (where another tower was built) to a bastion controlling the higher ground to the north. Bastion, tower, spur and castle were linked by a series of tunnels through which we now passed. Sally ports gave defenders access to the high ground and the large ditch surrounding the castle, all protection of the potential weak spot. The tunnels today offer glimpses out, and insight into the later development of the castle, with emplacements for cannon and much later overbuilding. Still, wandering the below ground parts one can almost hear the echoes of medieval guards, hurrying through the secret ways of the castle.
As the old gate was blocked up to form a stronger northern front, around the walls a new gateway was formed. And from the outside what a sight the Constable’s Gate is. Huge twin D-shaped towers sit astride the castle ditch, a fine residence (for the constable) sitting above an arched entry way between them. The route in then passes through another, pre-existing tower. The whole is some wonderful, interlocking series of curves and arches which even with later additions one boggles to understand the building of. It is a statement of power and strength. The high walls run away above the ditch either side, adding to the feeling of being allowed to enter only at the whim of those inside. Not that the sheep found surprisingly grazing around the ditch looked like they appreciated any of this.
Back inside by now the day was getting late and, after a fulfilling stop in the shop, we made our way down the western side of the castle, through Peverell’s Gate heading down the hill to our original entrance. Here the might of the medieval walls are in great evidence. They stand, punctuated by towers, tall and defiant, their form clearly visible unencumbered by the inner earthen banks raised against the eastern walls as proof against artillery. It seemed a shame to be leaving though—I feel there is still parts left unexplored (that eastern side and, I suppose, the War tunnels). And besides that the castle, once the confusion of later building has been navigated, is simply magnificent, a marvellous work of military and homely engineering, which melds early Norman with an almost concentric feel. Some castles leave one wishing there is a bit more; Dover leaves one feeling there is more to be seen.
Sadly though the time had caught up with us so we had to leave the land of dragons and St George to its high seat and head back down the hill we’d struggled up those hours before.
At the bottom of the hill is the White Horse so we half staggered into there to recover. After a refreshing drink the debate over what to do next led to the idea of moving on to try and find somewhere a bit nearer the station. Rejecting the Eight Bells as please not another Wetherspoon we found a nice looking but overcrowded micro pub before stumbling into the Golden Lion. Unfortunately it’s not on the level of the White Horse (or even Eight Bells), feeling very tired and, given this was a bank holiday, surprisingly empty. As we sat counting minutes to leave to find a train someone wandered in to set up karaoke for the evening—he at least was friendly; almost overly so in fact. And then it was away, to the train home and memories.Many more photos are to be had