Saturday 03 October 2015 – Dover Castle.
I wanted to get out and about today, summer has drifted inexorably into autumn, days will get shorter and days out are going to become less frequent, though they can hardly be much less frequent than they have been lately. With the forecasters predicting a sunny but cool day El and I planned on heading across London to Richmond where I was going to show El around my mid-1980s ‘hood before walking along the Thames for a late lunch in Kew. However, El was not feeling well, a nasty head cold on the back of chest infections preceded by a flu meant she did not feel like, or want to go out. She was keen that I made use of the day though, and unsurprisingly, so was I.
As I have been so busy at work for most of the year I had not prepared any sort of a list of things I want to do or see, so I spent at least an hour finding and then rejecting places to visit, before I settled on Dover Castle. Dover suited, not too expensive or too long a train journey and plenty to see, and I would get to be outside in what would hopefully be a sunny day – once the low lying cloud has cleared.
Work has been interesting, the madness of the past 12 months is over and it has become almost relaxing – I do not work in the evenings or weekends anywhere nearly as much as used to, though I cannot help myself at times and have to have a week peek at email. My contract expired while I was away walking and I have renewed it until the end of the year, though I turned down taking on the role permanently when I was offered it on my return.
I am now committed to finding a role outside of London – preferably towards the south west. I want to be able to feel the sand between my toes more readily and not have to quit a run half way through as I cannot breathe due to the pollution. I want to be within a couple of hours of London so El and I can see each other easily at weekends and on the occasional ‘school’ night. Plus, I don’t hate London, I have just had enough of it for now.
I booked my return train tickets for Dover on-line, I wanted to go from Stratford as it saved travelling into central London, but return from Stratford to Dover was 113 pounds, a return from St Pancras, was 30. I discovered once I got on the train at St Pancras that the first stop was Stratford… Go figure.
The journey was pretty fast, high speed train to Folkestone, however, as I also discovered once I was on the train at St Pancras there was no connecting to service to Dover as the station was closed for maintenance – there was a replacement bus service. This seems to feature a bit on my train trips to the south east! Sitting in front of me were three blokes who worked for the train company talking about their model railway collections and some of the trains they owned or lusted after. It was an interesting discussion from an observer’s point of view. Model trains can be very very expensive! I was also intrigued to learn you can control some parts of a model railway with an iPhone app. The world has moved on since I last saw a train set – or a layout to use their terminology.
I reached Folkestone on time and there was only a short wait for the bus to Dover so I did not get to experience the joys of Folkestone. I have family who lived here for many years and vaguely recall holidays when I was a child. I liked this figurine under the bridge arch outside the station, a little bit of street art.
It was short hop to Dover and the bus dropped a few of us off at the station before continuing on past the castle to Deal. I thought about asking if the driver would drop me at the castle entrance as it is up a hill, but suspecting a refusal I decided not to. I will reserve my un-informed opinions of the delights of Dover, as I passed straight through it on my way to the castle – it was pretty obvious where the castle was.
The rail works at Dover Priory Station were fairly obvious too.
Finding a sign that showed a simple walking route to the castle took a little bit of effort. I suspected there would be a way to get there that did not mean walking up the side of the main road, and I was right. It would have been nice to see more signs in the centre of town that did not just cater for drivers.
Unsurprisingly it was all up hill – via a delightful alleyway strewn with food wrappers, empty booze cans, and most charmingly, the residue of both. Luckily that was the only downside to the entire journey!
It is only a ten minute walk to the castle entrance. Last time I was here, I took a shot at English Heritage as the castle was closed, which I found a bit ridiculous given its status amongst southern English castles. I would like to give credit where it is due and say English Heritage have done a fantastic job with the castle though and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit today. Nice one EH !
Dover Castle is one of the major English castles, from a distance it looks spectacular, and from the sea it must dominate the skyline. It was built to guard the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point of the English Channel (what do the French call it ? The French Channel ? I must ask !)
There has probably been a fortification here for many hundreds of years, though the oldest remaining part – the Roman Lighthouse, “only” dates back to the first century. The main sections of the castle were formed in the 12th and 13th century and the castle has been changed and developed and used continuously until after WWII – when it was a crucial command centre in the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940.
The pedestrian entrance to the castle is through the Constables Gate, built in 1221, it is a mightily impressive entrance in to the grounds.
It was early afternoon when I arrived so I decided I would head directly to the cafe and get a coffee and something to eat before taking my tour around the castle, the cafe seemed to be in the right direction – i.e. downhill so it seemed like a perfect choice. I loved these old mortars.
There was a small path up along the side of the battlements so I walked along for a while, taking a photo back up the moat and the outer defensive wall. The banks and ditches all around the castle pre-date the construction of the castle itself and are believed to have been the defences of an old iron age fort that predated the Roman invasion, perhaps over two thousand years old. The builders of the castle certainly made use of them.
When I got to the other end I saw a sign saying ‘no climbing’. Oops….
I stopped for a sandwich and a coffee in the cafe, not a great coffee at all sadly, but it had caffeine so that was something. The afternoon was getting on so I carried on down to the far end of the castle to the ‘Wartime Tunnels’. There are guided tours through these every few minutes, but the queue was really long so I carried on going. The tunnels were originally started in 1797 as barracks but had been heavily modified and strengthened during the second world war.
There was a small section at the far end that could be entered down a long sloping tunnel that had a small display on the castle during the war. I loved this old poster.
There was a great view from here over the harbour mouth with one of the numerous ferries departing into the mist still hanging over the channel.
The castle is reasonably open to the public, but there are lots of sections gated off for, I am assuming for safety purposes, but I am always intrigued about stairs and ramps that lead into the ground. I suspect this whole are is utterly riddled with tunnels – more so than has ever been let on.
The officers new barracks were built at the end of the 19th century and are closed off to the public, they are surrounded by a large car park, so a shot from the slopes of the bank leading up to the chapel was the best angle.
I started a walk around the northerly walls, stopping to take a photo out of the start of the famed White Cliffs of Dover.
When I was travelling in SE Asia, I developed a habit of walking the outer walls of the places I visited, firstly to give a bit of perspective to the size of the place, but mainly because other people didn’t do it, so it was less crowded. On rare occasions I found things that other people never got to see. I still do this perimeter walk, so even though time was not big today I did walk the outer boundaries first.
Looking into the ammo stores for the gun emplacements, and their heavily graffitied walls.
Past the back of St Mary in Castro.
And down the view of some of the old cannons facing out to ward of potential threat.
The inner bailey and the great tower kept appearing in my view and I was saving them to last and looking forward to having a look inside.
One place I was really looking forward to exploring was the medieval tunnels. The original entrance to the castle was in a different location until 1217 when it was under-minded during a failed siege by the French. Once the siege was over the castle’s constable, Hubert de Burgh supervised a rebuilding of the wall and gate towers and outer towers to prevent attackers getting close. These were all linked together by a series of tunnels, some of the linking tunnels had port gates to allow defenders to mount counter attacks, and much of this 800 year old system is open to the public. It was my favourite part of the castle.
Dark and smelling of damp, cool and quiet – with the occasional childish shriek and laugh coming from places unknown as family groups toured the tunnels. There were lots of steps and ramps and rooms and it was all quite fun.
I loved these massive door handles that allowed the opening and closing of the port gates from the protection of solid bunkers.
After the tunnels, and back into glorious warm sunlight I walked past the massive imposing outer walls of the inner bailey and headed off to see the Roman light house and St Mary’s Church.
The pharos (lighthouse) was probably built at the end of the first century, it is the only surviving pharos in the UK and its survival is probably due to the importance that Dover Castle had since those early days. It was still used as lighthouse into the 13th century but was roofed and floored in the 1580’s and used as a gunpowder store.
The Church of St Mary in Castro has a Saxon core and has been dated to around 1000AD, it was heavily refurbished and modified in the 19th century, but the main structure of the building is still the Saxon original.
Last but not least I headed towards the inner bailey and the great tower. This 12th century construction is massive and solid and stunning to look at. I had lost the angle of the sun, so my photos do not do it justice, but the guide book I have in front of me as I write this has photos that make me want to go back and try again.
Most of the buildings in the inner bailey are of later construction as military barracks were built in the 1740s.
Exploring the great tower was great fun, it is large and it seems that visitors can roam most of it, there are a heck of a lot of stairways, and I do love a circular staircase !
The tower has been modified many times since Henry II commissioned its construction in the 1180s, and it has been used for many purposes – from royal residence to holding prisoners of war and as a munitions store. The interior has been decked out as it would have been set up as a royal residence in the time of King Henry II.
I was really surprised to find that visitors were allowed up on to the roof, so many of these ancient places are not safe for roof visits. With its great height, and location on the cliff top there were lovely views to be had from the roof!
And over the hills on the far side of Dover town.
Back down from the roof, it was time to bid farewell to Dover Castle, I had seen most of what I wanted to see, and the day was drawing to a close – as was the castle. I took a few parting photos as I left, before heading back down the hill to Dover.
It really is a magnificent looking castle!
I bought a can of beer from one of the local corner shops and got to the train station about 30 seconds before the rail replacement bus was leaving for Folkestone. The bus arrived just before the train left, so I jumped on and sat down in a mostly empty carriage with my can of beer and my book and relaxed. It was the first time I had sat down in over 3 hours and I was knackered !
I swapped trains at Ashford to get the fast train to Stratford, it was a short wait and I was lucky to walk out of Stratford station and straight on to a bus to Walthamstow. Never has my travelling luck been this good !!
It was a great day out, I really enjoyed Dover Castle, it is a great place to visit and comes highly recommended.