diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Grand Day Out: Dover

70 miles southeast of London lies one of the most famous towns in England - Dover. The town's worldwide fame as the gateway to Britain rests on two geographical quirks. First there are the cliffs - tall, majestic and white - with just one accessible breach where the river Dour has cut a valley deep down through the chalk. And second there's France, just 21 miles away across the English Channel, making this the closest spot in the UK to continental Europe. And so the town of Dover grew up here on the Kent coast, between the white cliffs and opposite Calais. Over the years its unique frontline location has attracted the attention of Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Guglielmo Marconi, Louis Bleriot, Adolf Hitler and numerous asylum seekers. Yesterday I joined their esteemed company by taking the train down to Dover to see the place for myself.

Dover's one of those places you usually pause and pass through, not somewhere you tend to stop. I'd been a few times before - down the big curvy ramp and onto the ferry - but only on school trips abroad and without disembarking from the coach. But there's actually plenty to do and see in and around the town itself, far more than I could manage in a day. The town's museum boasts a bronze age boat (the world's oldest seagoing boat, no less), dug up a few years ago when builders were scything a dual carriageway along the seafront. There's also the remains of a Roman 'hotel' with extensive painted walls, apparently the best preserved Roman town house in the country (but closed until April). Most of the town centre is pretty standard, though. Gangs of chattering teens gather up side alleys and mass in the local park (I agree, Laura-Ann, Dover's far chavvier than I was expecting). Pensioners buzz between the minor chain stores on their mobility scooters (I have no idea why anybody would want to retire here - all the interesting places are up steep slopes). Property is cheap, and everything I saw hinted that unemployment is high. For many local residents Dover appears to be somewhere they're trapped, not somewhere they have a future.

Dover Castle
It's been obvious to every military leader since the Iron Age where precisely on the southeast coast of Britain they should build their main fortress. Here, in Dover, above the harbour, beside the town, atop the sheer white cliff, bang opposite France. Both Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror diverted their invading armies a few miles up the coast from Dover, to where the defences were weaker, then marched in overland and established their own military presence here. The oldest building on site is the Roman-built lighthouse (or pharos), dating back to the first century AD. The bottom half still stands (pictured), tucked up beside the rear of the half-as-old Saxon church, although the dark interior of this decaying stone tower is now just somewhere for local pigeons and seagulls to roost. Henry II enlarged Williams motte and bailey by erecting a tall stone keep - still the castle's dominant centrepiece. It's a wonderful building to explore, full of spiral staircases, long passages and side chambers, plus there's a great view across Dover from the four turrets on the roof. Elsewhere you can descend deep into the castle's medieval tunnels - long snaking defensive pathways which twist on (and on) into the dark underbelly of the clifftop, just like you might expect to find beneath Hogwarts. There's also a much more up-to-date labyrinth of secret WW2 tunnels dug into the cliff, complete with underground hospital and command centre in which the Dunkirk landings were planned. It's an extensive site, so allow yourself more than 55 minutes for your visit - my late-entry ticket may have cost half price, but I don't think I did the place justice.

The port of Dover
Dover is one of the original medieval Cinque Ports (pronounced, rather worryingly, 'sink'). Whereas most of the other harbours have long since become unnavigable (or, indeed, landlocked), the port of Dover continues to thrive. The docks dominate the shoreline of the town, from the hoverport, cargo depots and marina to the west to the vast ferry terminals out east. During the railway age trains ran right down to the docks, but declining rail traffic means that Dover Marine station is now long gone, replaced by a Cruise Liner terminal. Now almost everything and everyone arrives by road, so the Eastern Docks are by far the most important. The A2 trunk road cuts through the chalk and descends into the docks on concrete stilts, delivering articulated lorries, cars and coaches direct into the heart of the docks. It's only from a vantage point on the cliffs above that the full scale of operations is revealed. I looked down across acres and acres of flat land reclaimed from the sea, covered by tarmac, covered by parking spaces and brightly coloured containers. Lorry drivers and holidaymakers were being nudged and funnelled around the site, swirling through a series of booths and customs checks before parking up on the harbourside beside a 'food village' to await boarding. Giant roll-on roll-off ferries lined up to accept each new batch of escapees, before closing their bow doors and chugging off through the gap in the breakwater and out into the Channel. It was hypnotic to watch and a reminder that, even in these days of air travel and Eurostar, Britain remains an island nation dependent on its links with the sea.

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