The Defence of the Realm (Dover Castle)

Dover Castle is one of my favourite destinations for taking visitors to see England at its most English while rescuing them from the worst of the tourist traps that deface the more popular sites such as Cambridge or Stratford-Upon-Avon. After all, in just one day at Dover Castle you really can experience two thousand years of history and, so well is it all laid out, there is even a chance that some of the information may actually take root. But even for the truly travel-befuddled, one look out across the Channel towards France from atop those imposing white cliffs will leave an indelible impression.

I have selected some of my favourite pictures, culled from numerous visits: they include:

Roman Dover, 1st Century lighthouse and fort

Saxon Dover, 10th Century church

Norman Dover, 12th Century Keep and walls

Tudor Dover, 16th Century moat

Napoleonic Dover, 18th Century bastions and new barracks

WW2 Dover, 20th Century secret tunnels

Forgive me if the detail is less than completely accurate, the narrative is long and complex but never far from centre stage in the history of England. I hesitate to give too proprietorial an emphasis to the colour of the cliffs, it’s only chalk after all, the rapid weathering of which ensures that fresh chunks fall off after every storm, shortening the coastline and freshening up its gleaming white aspect. No one could describe me as particularly jingoistic but it does get under my fingernails when film makers ignore this iconic landscape and think it is all right to substitute the dour grey cliffs of Wales or Ireland. Even Kevin Costner, who probably thinks that the women of Kent still go around wearing wimples, managed to serve up the blinding white cliffs of nearby Sussex in his execrable film, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.

Roman Dover was of particular interest to me during my free rail travel days, which was just as well since it took three visits for me to find the Roman Painted House open to visitors. This little archaeological treasure sits in the town below the castle and has given up innumerable clues to the day to day life of the merchants and diplomats who stopped off here on their way to and from the continent. Staffed by volunteers and barely able to keep open at all, its condition is a sad indictment of the value placed by Dover Town Council on the ancient history of this Gateway to England. An ugly rumour persists that they even drilled through the nearby Roman baths to set the concrete stanchions for a multi-storey car park. However, the Roman lighthouse is protected by its location within the Castle boundaries and still commands the highest point for all to see, the later addition of a 14th century top storey having preserved it throughout all the intervening ages. It may never have been as spectacular as the seventh wonder of the ancient world but at least our pharos is still standing.

Until last year I had never managed to visit the Secret Wartime Tunnels, the operations centre for so many of the most dramatic developments of the Second World War. Hellfire Corner, this part of the coast was called, and the incalculable amount of shipping sunk here continues to decay, still releasing the occasional oil slick or unexploded ordinance. The tunnels are preserved just as they were left when they were sealed at the end of the war against the possibility of future use in another conflict. Years later, when it was accepted that even a small thermonuclear explosion would raise the temperature of the white cliffs to that of the face of the sun, they were de-classified and opened to visitors.

Military history is not my strongest point however well presented but my mother’s neighbour Connie, now in her late eighties, was kind enough to let me make a little film clip of her wartime reminiscences. A Leading WREN (Women’s Royal Naval Service), serving in the tunnels throughout much of the war, she remembered the dances and the flirtations, the friendships and the frictions, long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of drama and confusion but she never once complained of the danger. Even after all these years she wasn’t going to tell me much about her actual duties but she did tell me that what the guidebooks say about inter-service secrecy was just plain nonsense. They depended upon each other for their lives so they weren’t going to keep their bunkmates in the dark just because they wore a different coloured uniform. And they were so bloody cheerful!

Anyone who hasn’t been to Dover Castle will thoroughly enjoy a visit and pretty well everyone who has will find out a lot more if they go again. It isn’t particularly cheap but it compares well with other, more popular destinations and it certainly delivers as substantial helping of Englishness as any visitor could wish to experience.


Categories: Britain, East of England

1 Comment

  • sandy says:

    I enjoyed the old photos and family photos mixed in with the new to show the history and film representations. Beautiful white cliffs, aren’t they!

Leave a Reply