Dover is one of those iconic places which everyone knows, at least from the TV or pictures. White cliffs, castle, port etc. But on the other hand for most people who actually visit it, it is just a transit spot. Brits quickly board the ferries to Calais while most arriving Europeans quickly continue to London and points beyond.
This was also my first experience with Dover. In fact I belong to an increasingly rare breed of travellers for whom the White Cliffs of Dover rather than some bland airport arrival hall were the first images of Britain. After hitch-hiking all the way from Poland I boarded a ferry in Calais and crossed the 20 miles (33km) of the Strait of Dover. But it was over 16 years ago and I also didn’t linger but immediately headed further north. My second visit to Dover was caused by the Icelandic volcano grounding flights in Europe while I was on holiday in Poland. Again I had to use a ferry to reach Britain and again I didn’t actually stay in Dover at all.
Finally, last year, with my girlfriend, we decided to actually visit Dover properly. We have recently acquired English Heritage membership and Dover Castle looked really interesting in their brochure. So, on a nice summer Sunday we just rented car using some leftover air miles on our cards and hit the road.
We drove straight to Dover Castle, one of the most impressive castles I have visited so far. Founded soon after the Norman conquest it is also one of the oldest in England (up there with Windsor Castle and the Tower of London). It was probably built on the site of earlier Iron Age earthworks and it contains a Saxon church (restored in the 19th century). It was also one of the longest garrisoned castles n Britain, from its beginning nine centuries ago, uninterruptedly, until 1958. What is truly amazing is the fact that it even contains a Roman lighthouse, one of the best preserved in Europe and the tallest still standing Roman structure in Britain. I’m fascinated with Roman culture and infrastructure so for me it was one of the must sees in the region for a while.
I love castles and Dover is one the finest examples of medieval military architecture. Located on the dramatic cliffs overlooking the Strait of Dover it commands the shortest approach to England from the continent. In fact you can actually see France from the castle. The oldest part of the castle and its heart is the keep, or the great tower, built during the reign of Henry II. It was the splendid palace to entertain the visitors as well as a last redoubt of the sprawling castle complex. It is 25 metres tall and has walls up to 6,5 metres thick. The interior of the great tower is nowadays restored to its original décor, including very colourful furniture. It is amazing to see all those pastel colours as they look very different to how we imagine medieval castles. Grey and cold.
The castle was expanded in the first half of the 13th century under King John and Henry III, who completed the successive rings of defensive walls surrounding the great tower. Then over the years various bits and pieces were added to the complex.
Then, at the end of the 18th century, during the Napoleonic Wars, a massive rebuilding took place. The outer defences were completely remodelled and huge bastions were added to provide gun positions. Also during that time a complex of barrack tunnels, about 15 metres below the cliff top, were dug. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the tunnels housed more than 2,000 men but afterwards they were abandoned for more than a century.
During the Second World War the tunnels were used as a command centre, hospital and a large combined headquarters, responsible for guarding the Straits of Dover and involved in preparing for the 1944 invasion of Europe. For those purposes they were extended and strengthened.
To visit the tunnels used during WWII you have to join a Disney-style tour during which special effects, dramatic projections and real film footage bring things to life. I’m not a fan of such dramatisations. But luckily there are also medieval tunnels burrowed beneath the castle during and after the siege of 1216. These covert defences protected the most vulnerable side of the castle from attack. They are winding, dark and eerie, much more fun then the showy tour of the more modern tunnels.
Dover Castle is admittedly one of the largest in Britain and touring it took us a good few hours. After leaving it in the early afternoon we decided to take a walk along the cliff tops east of the castle, directly above the Port of Dover. There is a visitor centre and a car park run by the National Trust which allows for an easy access to the coastal path. The trails follow the cliff tops closely offering great views of the famous chalk rock formations. These are the cliffs which for generations (before the advent of mass air travel) greeted most visitors to England. The same cliffs I had seen those 16 years ago. It was fun to finally see them up close. The weather was glorious and we could clearly see the coast of France, just 20 miles away.
The path also offers uninterrupted views of the port. With 16 million travellers using it every year it is the busiest passenger port in Europe. Massive boats are constantly manoeuvring in and out of the docks and you can see several at any one time in the docks or crossing the Channel. In the port itself there is constant activity with boats docking and cars and lorries loading and unloading. For any transport geek (like myself) it is a great show to watch.
Our last stop that day was the Samphire Hoe just outside Dover. This slightly bizarre place is a country park created by using 4.9 million cubic metres of chalk marl from the Channel Tunnel excavations. It is accessible from the A20 via a single-track tunnel controlled by the traffic lights. We actually went there just because it looked weird on the Ordnance Survey map. The 30 hectares that make up the park were totally reclaimed from the sea. The first job to be completed was the building of walls in the sea to create an artificial lagoon at the base of the cliffs which was then filled with the rock spoil. That gave the site its artificial shape on the map which caught our attention. There is a walking trail offering great views on the towering Shakespeare Cliff and the park serves as a wildlife area. In the late afternoon our car was the only one in the car park and the whole place had a bit of a ghostly feel. I simply love such unusual sites.
In general we had a great day out. Medieval castle, underground tunnels, Roman lighthouse, towering cliffs, bustling port and a glimpse of France, all less than two hours from London. Dover is definitely worth a visit.