Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dover - the last bastion of defence against Hitler's Europe

Dover Castle dominating the port town of Dover

What comes to your mind when you think of Dover? The white limestone cliffs of Dover, the last bastion of defence against Hitler's Europe more than half a century ago. Dover Castle, fortified since the Iron Age and its occupants kept on building on its foundations for the next few hundred years.

Is that all, you ask? Well, not exactly but these two with Dover Museum, which is right smacked in the town centre is enough to keep you occupied for a weekend if you are looking to do a short trip down the southeast.

The restored Dover waterfront

The Javelin train from St Pancras International takes just over an hour (no changes in between) to get to Dover (Dover Priory station), the closest town to continental Europe. While Dover serves as the ferry terminal to Calais if you are driving, it is definitely worth a visit if you can spare some time.

Dover Castle

Dover Castle Keep
The great keep of Dover Castle

The extent of Dover Castle grounds

The castle is steeped in history. There are evidence of its being fortified as early as Iron Age. One of the two Roman lighthouse in the town of Dover still stands on the castle grounds. Subsequent Kings just kept on building and adding to its defences. Barracks were burrowed into the soft limestone grounds during the wars with Napoleon.

Secret Wartime Tunnels - no photos allowed so....

With the advent of aeroplanes, defence underground was enhanced and the myriad of tunnels served as the command base for Operation Dynamo, which Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay oversaw the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. After the World War II, the tunnels serve as one of the Regional Seats of Government in event of the central government's collapse should London be pulverised in a nuclear attack.

Falconry - brilliant performance on a blustery day

A visit to the castle, which is the largest in England, easily takes up an entire afternoon. The best way to approach by foot would be along Castle Street. You might just miss the ticket counter at the top of a steep flight of stairs. If you do, there is another more prominent one at the car park further up still. Tickets are priced at £17 per adult (at the time of writing) entitles you to the entire castle grounds and all the exhibits, tours and performances within.

Regimental Museum at Dover Castle

Dover Castle Bailey

Mock up kitchen within Dover Castle

The view of the pebbled beach from the top of the Dover Castle

Roman Lighthouse and St Mary in the Castle

A climb right up to the impressive castle keep is a must for the view right at the top is not to be missed. The strong coastal wind on the viewing platform keeps you from staying for long - the perfect excuse to retire downstairs into the keep and the exhibits on the historical regimental units and bits of the castle's history.

The Secret Wartime Tunnels tour is not to be missed after you are done with the castle itself. The fifty minute tour (twenty minute intervals) has been spruced up in recent years. Instead of following a guide who will lead you through the sections that are open to the public, the bulk of the tour is now taken over by sleek video animation and surround sound effects. One thing is for sure, this is one tour for the entire family. Oh, be sure to ask the guide for why he thinks why Dover Castle wasn't damaged during the second World War.

Discarded Dover Castle tickets

Read before you go

Bypass the wartime tunnels and underground hospital tours and go into the Castle keep first. The climb up is an effort for some. The tours are a breeze in comparison.

Get a schedule of performances at the ticket counter and plan your visit accordingly. Spend your time in the permanent exhibits in between the performances. Be sure to find out when the last tours for Secret Wartime Tunnels and Underground Hospital are so that you wouldn't miss it.

Dover Museum

Believe me, after the climb up (and down) Dover Castle, your feet will need a brief respite; Dover Museum (£3.50) is just the place to do that. Expect to spend around two hours in the three storey museum that depicts Dover during the Roman times, the role it played in the war and the historical development of the port town.

Bronze Age Boat at Dover Museum

The prized exhibit is the Bronze Age boat unearthed in 1992 under a street and a burial site in Dover itself. The boat, believed to be over 3,500 years old, was in such a delicate condition that archaeologists decided to cut it into sections to be reassembled. The involved restoration process took more than five years and it was returned to Dover in 1998.

There is a 12 minute clip at the back of the exhibition that shows the excavation process and the archaeologists' efforts to replicate boat builders' efforts using only bronze age tools.

Also on the second floor are six mini layouts of Dover between 1450 and 1990 that show the development of the town and how its harbour is transformed through the centuries. The display boards along the stairs up and down the floors will thrill any history buffs interested in the Dunkirk evacuation.

White cliffs of Dover

When you feel sufficiently recharged, it's time to head for the cliffs. You can drive right up to the Visitors' Centre and carry on from there but what is the fun of that? A walk from the town itself along E Cliff (see map below) is much more rewarding as you turn around to see Dover Castle first looming above you then at eye level and finally just below eye level to the east.

Path up the Dover White Cliffs

After the checkpoint at Visitors' Centre where you can make a toilet stop (which I suggest you seriously do), the next pitstop will be Mrs Knotts Kitchen that lies a good 50min of trekking to the east. Right after the carpark, there is a less defined path to the left. For those fainthearted, I suggest you seek out this path - the one to the right takes on a former tramway that cuts into the edge of the cliff. While it is less scary than it sounds, you will find yourself a mere foot away from the cliff edge at certain spots. I shudder even now to think of that. Of course, the views are way more rewarding. I guess I'll let the photos do the talking.

Long but gentle path up the cliffs

The sight that greets you along E Cliff




Haystacks on the fields near the lighthouse

South Foreland Lighthouse at the end of the walk - can you spot a kite being flown?

Like all treks, the process is usually more rewarding than the end point. Those expecting a feast at Mrs Knotts Kitchen will be sorely disappointed. Having tea and scones out in the open in the face of the winds' onslaught isn't exactly a pleasant experience. Nevertheless, if you brought some snacks of your own, you can certainly take a breather in the enclosure before heading back to town again. There is the South Foreland Lighthouse (£5 entry - 11am to 5pm) at the end point for those who fancy a bird's eye view at the top of the cliff.

Read before you go

1. Bring a bottle of water. 500ml would be plenty; there is really no point lugging a huge bottle up the cliff and then back down again. Some biscuits wouldn't hurt either.

2. Leave your buggies in town for those planning on bringing your toddlers up. Regardless of how dexterous you are, you will find it almost impossible to negotiate some of the slopes. Bring a harness instead. I would suggest avoid the cliff path. Whenever there is a choice, take the path to the left.

3. It's windy. Bundle up your hair or wear a cap. The last thing you need is for your hair to lash against your eyes when you're at the edge of the cliff.

4. The Visitors' Centre sells walking sticks for those who need some support. Walk on the grassy part of the path to conserve energy. They offer more friction too. Oh, wear sensible walking shoes. I saw some folks struggling on platforms. I have no idea what they were thinking.

5. Bring along a pair of sunglasses. If you are heading up in the morning, the sun will be in your eyes. This might seem obvious. Many don't realise that. I didn't.

Where to stay in Dover

I made a last minute booking at Blakes of Dover. It's a small property with just four rooms with a small pub restaurant on the ground floor. The view from its windows isn't brilliant but the location is wonderful. Less than a minute's walk from the town centre, it lies on Castle Street and is a direct path right up to Dover Castle. The room has basic amenities and is managed by a lovely gentleman with a ready smile. Check out Booking.com for more places to stay in Dover.

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