diamond geezer

 Monday, February 24, 2014

Postcards from Dover

In 1909 a lowly meadow behind Dover Castle won Louis Blériot a grand. The Daily Mail had offered the prize to the first man to fly across the English Channel, not thinking anyone would win, in a pioneering aviation contest. Louis had practised over land in France, increasing his flight time to almost an hour, before making his first attempt just after dawn one July morning. A ship guided him towards the invisible English coast, and to Northfall Meadow where the journalist Charles Fontaine stood waving a Tricolor. Gusty winds forced a heavy landing, snapping the blade of the propeller and damaging the undercarriage, but Blériot was unhurt. His 36½ minute flight brought fame and big success for his fledgling aviation company, and a long career in the aeronautical industry followed. Blériot's landing place is marked by a granite aeroplane inset in the grass opposite Dover Castle. Most visitors to the car park up the hill don't realise it's there, hidden a short distance away in the woods down an unsigned path. On Saturday afternoon I was the only person present, approaching the outline across muddy grass for a closer look. The field sloped more steeply than I was expecting, making steps around the top a necessity, although I guess a belly-flop landing didn't require a horizontal surface.

White cliffs rise on both sides of Dover town, but the most famous are those to the east behind the main harbour. The National Trust own the land above for the benefit of the nation, and have recently opened a Visitors' Centre below Fox Hill Down. The walk up from Dover is knackering so most drive, and a National Trust volunteer collects easy money at the entrance to the car park. Some pull up facing the Channel and merely stare through the windscreen, never feeling the need to step outside. Others wander a few yards down the grassy slope to watch the bustling port below, but never venture further along the clifftop to enjoy a more private view. Most do thankfully go for a proper walk - two are signposted, a shorter stroll or a longer hike along the coast to South Foreland Lighthouse. Off they pile from the tearoom-stroke-giftshop, kids bouncing and dogs buzzing, for what looks like being an easy amble. And then a descent is required at Langdon Hole, which should be simple because there are steps, but they're a cascade of mud at the moment so alternative routes must be sourced. Tracking the pink signs soon leads to a coastal viewpoint, not that many pause for the view, after which a gently sloping track cuts up the cliff face back to tea and perhaps cake. You should choose the To The Lighthouse walk, obviously, if you've more hours to spare.

The main privilege of visiting Dover is to watch the ferries shuttling to and fro. They're best seen from the eastern clifftop, a regular procession of great ships on a line from Calais or somewhere continental. As each nears the harbour wall they slow to pass through the gap in the breakwater, then manoeuvre into place alongside one of seven adjustable piers. It's not long before the gates are opened and hundreds of vehicles pour out, a cascade of lorries and coaches spiralling round a series of raised roads. The scale of cross Channel traffic is perhaps higher than you'd imagine, at least in terms of volume of stock and numbers of tour parties. As they arrive another batch of travellers prepares to depart, queueing in rows to drive up the ramp and escape the country. Listen carefully from the clifftop and you can just about make out the booming instructions broadcast to passengers as they prepare for embarkation. It's a clockwork operation with turnaround time kept to a minimum, every day writing another small chapter in our island story.

At the big roundabout below Dover Castle, traffic from the port disgorges. It's precisely here that both the A2 and the A20 end, the former swooping down from above and the latter heading along the seafront. Lorries belonging to logistics companies you've never heard of thunder by, as do 53-seaters laden with t-shirted tour parties and school trips. Nudged up beneath the cliff face is a narrow terraced street, East Cliff, whose back gardens you might think would need protective netting. Partway along is a pub called First and Last, a title it gained when the previous pub of this name further up the street closed down. Alas the new First and Last has now followed suit, despite a string of landlords who've recently taken it on. The ideal spot, you'd have thought, for a final pint on leaving the country or an initial beer on returning, but no. Parking's non-existent and most simply drive down the main road in front without ever noticing the place. Part-conversion to a hostel didn't help the economics, nor please the locals, hence the boarding-up of both. And I guess that means the new 'First and Last' is the bar at the Premier Inn on Marine Parade, a soulless building that better sums up the grim heart of seafront Dover. Cheers.

Across the Western Heights the sun is beginning to set. I'm sitting in a spiky shelter on the promenade, devouring my first seaside fish and chips of the year. Cost less than a fiver too, which I wasn't expecting, but no complaints. I shovel up another mouthful of cod with my plastic fork as a young family approaches. "I'll catch you up," says the son, then sits down on the wooden slats nearby and opens his rucksack. Out come the rollerblades, three fluorescent wheels in parallel under each, and he tries to slip them on. This takes some time. You can't whip off a pair of trainers and then strap yourself into rollerblades with any haste, and his velcro fastenings are proving slow and troublesome. By the time son has his blades on, near enough, his family are already some way distant. He stands, somewhat shakily, and feels his way to the end of the shelter to launch off. It's not going well. He stares down the promenade, wobbling unsteadily, considering his immediate options. And yes, it's probably for the best to retreat to the bench and change his footwear back to trainers. This doesn't take quite so long because he's expert in tying laces, and then he's off, running headlong across the promenade to catch up with the rest of his clan. I can only guess what cutting remark his sister will offer when he gets there. A seagull swoops in and stares at my fish, then eyeballs me and thinks better of it.

My Dover gallery
» There are 24 photographs altogether

I travelled High Speed down to Dover for £10 using Southeastern's 'Kent Coast' special offer. Available off-peak from London to either Deal, Folkestone, Dover or Margate from 17 February to 16 March.

» Further postcards from Dover from my trip in 2006
» Postcards from Deal
» Postcards from Margate
» ...but best hang on until the autumn to visit Folkestone for the Triennial

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