|Dover Castle -- the key to England|
By Carole Barclay
Dover has been the gateway to England for thousands of years. The chalky cliffs were immortalised in song by Vera Lynn during the Second World War, and the castle and the subterranean defences on the cliffs that surround the ‘Key of England’ were maintained until the end of the Cold War.
The Romans built a port here guarded by a light-house whose remains can still be seen today. The Saxons fortified the cliffs overlooking the town and the Normans who followed erected a mighty tower that became a major coastal defence for centuries to come.
France is just 34 km away; you can see the French coast from the cliffs on any clear day. Our Bronze Age ancestors traded across the Channel in wooden boats, you can see the remains of one of them in the town’s museum. That trade never stopped.
By the Middle Ages Dover had become a bustling ferry port. It still is despite fierce competition from the Channel Tunnel, which opened in 1994. Although the ferries to Boulogne and Ostend have now gone, the remaining services to Calais and Dunkirk carried 11.7 million passengers, 2.6 million lorries, 2.2 million cars and motorcycles, and 80,000 coaches in 2017.
Dover is still Europe’s busiest ferry port and a major terminal for the cruise ships that pack two dedicated terminals in the summer. Most visitors make a bee-line to see the castle, which gives a glimpse of life in the medieval court of Henry II, and explore the underground tunnels that were the hub of the navy’s coastal operations, including the Dunkirk evacuation, during the Second World War.
Some of the tunnels were later converted to house a secret ‘regional seat of government’ and shelter for the chosen few during a nuclear war. These deep bunkers were only closed when the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Dover’s last military link finally ended with a service in the garrison church in 2014, but the church continues today as a civilian place of worship in the heart of the castle. St Mary in Castro was built in Saxon days. By its side are the 24 metre-high remains of a Roman lighthouse or Pharos that was converted into a belfry during the middle ages.]’[
From the ramparts you can see the entire extent of the port of Dover in the valley below. On the other side is the Western Heights and its massive fortifications and earthworks. They were built during the Napoleonic Wars and were only decommissioned in 1961. The Citadel continued in use as a detention centre until 2015. Now a local nature reserve, most of this vast military complex can be explored by anyone who can manage the stiff walk up the hill!
Dover was hammered by German artillery during the war and most of the old town was destroyed, but it’s still worth wandering the streets. Dover Museum is a must, if only to see the Bronze Age boat discovered during road-works in 1992. The significant remains of a Roman mansion uncovered in the 1970s is another must-see during the tourist season. The Town Hall, which goes back to the 13th century, is also worth a visit.
Many churches in what is still a small town go back to Saxon and Norman days, such as what’s left of the church of St James that was destroyed by German shelling during the war. The surviving walls and the massive Norman gateway are now preserved as a memorial to the suffering of the people of Dover. The locals call it the “Tidy Ruin” and it’s easily reached on the road to the castle.
The Dover parliamentary seat fell to the Tories in 2010 but it will be one of Labour’s key targets in the next election. Charlotte Cornell was chosen as Labour’s prospective candidate in March. Charlotte, a former English teacher who works for the new Labour MP for nearby Canterbury, says: "My job is to earn the respect and trust of local people and explain how the realistic and positive policies of Jeremy Corbyn and the excellent Labour Manifesto will bring hope and ambition back to local people.”
The Roman ‘Painted House’ is open from April to September, and admission is £4 and £3 for children, students and pensioners. Entry to the Western Heights, the ‘Tidy Ruin’ and Dover Museum is free. Dover Castle tickets cost £20 with the usual concessions for students and pensioners, admission is free for English Heritage members. There’s free on-site parking for up to 200 cars, plus peak time and events off-site parking with a free mini-bus connection to the castle. There is also a regular bus service from Dover Priory Station.