Dover is one of the UK’s major ports, providing a vital connection across the narrow Straits of Dover to France & continental Europe. The town has been an important town since at least Roman times when it became a fortified port and has served as a key point in the defence of the nation during multiple conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to World War 2.
I arrived into Dover onboard on of Southeastern’s HighSpeed services (read about that here) at the town’s Priory station. Once a town with multiple stations, Priory is the only one that remains, located at the north end of the tunnels under the town’s Western Heights. Given I’d just passed under these imposing cliffs, I decided to head up to the top of them first and see what they had to offer.
After a rather tough climb (an elevation gain of 124m according to Strava!), the first thing that took my breath away (other than the climb) was the stunning views over the town, port and castle towering over their eastern side. Whilst the cliffs themselves are obviously natural, the defences of the Western Heights were first constructed in the 18th & 19th centuries. By the start of the 20th century the defence of the Western Heights were reputedly the ‘strongest and most elaborate’ in the country.
There are two main parts to the defences on the heights, ‘The Citadel’ and the ‘Drop Redoubt’. With the Citadel being on the western end of the heights, whilst the Drop Redoubt is closer to the town, I decided to stick to exploring the latter, leaving the former for another visit. The Drop Redoubt was constructed by cutting trenches into the hillside and leaving a large pentagon that was then faced with brickwork. This essentially left a solid island, on the top of which various military buildings were placed. The defences were further developed in the mid-1800s over concern that the UK would be invaded by the armies of Napoleon III and after further use by the army through the two world wars, the western heights were eventually abandoned in the late 1950s.
If you’re heading up to the Western Heights, be aware that it is a very steep and quite tough climb, and therefore its advisable to drive or get public transport up to the top. There’s several council car parks near to the various parts of the heights, and there is also a bus 3 times a day (1022, 1222 & 1422) from the town centre to the heights. The last bus back down to the town departs the citadel about 1430.
Slightly below the Drop Redoubt is the The Grand Shaft. Built in the early 1800s, the shaft is comprised of two brick cylinders with three staircases intertwined between them, allowing the quick movement of troops from the barracks on the Western Heights to the town below. Unfortunately, The Grand Shaft is only open on the third Sunday of each month between March & November (times affected by Covid) and so I wasn’t able to explore it on my visit.
After making my way back down to sea level via the passageways of the Drop Redoubt, I had about an hour to kill until my lunch reservation and so went for a wander around the harbour front. My first stop, on the edge of the marina in Dover’s Western Docks, was the local RNLI Lifeboat station, somewhere I always try to visit and support when I’m near the coast. Unfortunately, to protect the vital volunteers during Covid-19, the station wasn’t open to the public, however I was able to donate online here to support the work of this lifesaving charity!
After a walk down the Prince of Wales pier and looking at the work going on for the, part EU funded, regeneration of the Western Docks, it was time to head for lunch. I was extremely impressed with the spot I’d found for lunch, a local restaurant and brewery called Cullins Yard. Unfortunately due to Covid, the brewery hadn’t been operational and so there was none of their own beer available, however my meal of fish and chips was excellent and there was a real laid back feeling to the place.
Feeling full, and with about and hour until my bus up to the castle, I decided to further explore the seafront and investigate the plethora of monuments along the promenade. Taking time to read some of the information alongside the monuments provided a fascinating insight into Dover’s civilian and military history, including ‘Operation Fuller’ aka ‘The Channel Dash’ where British forces attempted to stop some of the German fleet rushing up the channel from the Atlantic to the North Sea. Unfortunately, 147 members of the RAF, Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm lost their lives in the attempt, however the German Navy described the outcome as “a tactical victory, but a strategic defeat” as the damage to some of the German fleet meant them remaining in North Sea ports.
Further along the promenade there is a monument to the ‘daredevil’ Matthew Webb, the first recorded person to swim the English Channel without the use of artificial aids. Webb took a total of 21 hours and 40 minutes to complete the crossing from Dover to Calais, and his zig-zag course meant that he swam almost 40 miles to cover the 26 miles between the towns. Webb died, aged 35, during his attempt to swim across the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River near Niagara Falls.
After my walk along the promenade I headed into the town centre to catch a bus to the castle, as I didn’t fancy climbing another hill after my adventures up the Western Heights earlier in the day. Buses 80 & 81 run half hourly from the town centre up Castle Hill Road calling at both the Canon’s Gate and Dover Castle stops. Although usually access to the castle is available for pedestrians at the top of the hill via Constable’s Tower, due to Covid-19 only the Canon’s Gate entrance was available and so I had a walk partway back down the hill to enter the castle’s grounds.
There is evidence that the site of Dover Castle may have had fortifications as early as the Iron Age, but what is certain is that the site is home to the tallest and most complete Roman structure in England, one of Dover’s two Roman lighthouses (the other is on the Western Heights). The castle was further developed during the early Norman period, however it took on most of it’s current shape during the reign of Henry II.
Supposedly Henry II invested around £6,500 into developing the castle, an extremely large sum of money for the time, especially given it was almost two thirds of his annual income at the time. It was during this period that the Great Tower (now the area of the castle with the largest exhibition) and the inner and outer baileys were constructed. A lot of the rooms of the Great Tower are set up to look as they might have done during the period, however I was disappointed by the lack of information boards available, especially given this was one of the few areas with an exhibition that was open. However, as you can see below, the views from the top of the tower were AMAZING!
Unfortunately, due to there being insufficient space for social distancing, the Napoleonic tunnels, greatly used during World War 2, were closed during my visit. These tunnels have served various purposes, however, are most famous for being the command centre for Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of French & British soldiers from Dunkirk. The tunnels also served as an air-raid shelter, hospital and, for a period during the cold war, a shelter for the Regional Seat of Government in the event of a nuclear attack.
The final part of the castle I visited, and my personal highlight, was the Admiralty Look-out. This area gave a great overview of how the artillery and other defences of the castle and town worked as well as awesome views out over the port and White Cliffs. Close to the look-out there was a statue of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, the man responsible for commanding Operation Dynamo and the naval forces for the invasion of France in 1944. Ramsey, who had initially retired from the navy in 1938 but was coaxed back by Churchill a year later, was killed towards the end of World War 2 when his plane crashed upon take-off from Paris.
Personally, I was a little bit disappointed with the castle. Whilst I understand that parts had to remain closed, I feel English Heritage have focused most their educational efforts at small specific areas of the castle. Other than the exhibitions in the Great Hall, Arthur’s Hall & Admiralty Look-out, I saw very few information signs around the rest of the castle, and those that were there were mostly limited to the name of the section of castle and the era it was built. Whether more information was available in guidebook or audio-guide, I don’t know, but whilst I love a castle, I feel I’ve learnt more about the castle researching it for this post than at the castle itself.
With my day in Dover drawing to a close, I took a short wander through the town on my way to the station. Although my visit focused on the high ground either side of the town, the town itself seems to have plenty of reasons to visit. Signs to the Dover Museum, Bronze Age Boat and Roman Painted House caught my interest in the town, whilst the Swingate Airfield & Transmitting station and Bleriot memorial are definitely places I want to visit that are slightly further out.
If you’re into history, I guarantee you’ll find something to do that you’ll love within the town, especially in regards to the Napoleonic wars or World War 2. If you’re a family, I’m sure there are plenty of things for the kids, and if in doubt, there’s a castle to run around in! Even if you don’t make a special trip to Dover, why not visit for the day before catching that ferry to France or Belgium next year?