London Diary – Dover, Kent

We went to Dover in Kent for Thanksgiving weekend. Because Dover is home to the famous White Cliff and Dover Castle. It is also the closest point to France across the Channel.

Dover was shrouded in grey rainy chilly wind when we arrived Friday afternoon. The wind was so strong we had to cancel the plan to walk along the cliff top.

Sat morning however turned out perfectly gorgeous. According to hotel staff, that was how the day started on Fri. We hurried through breakfast and headed back out to the White Cliff. On the way we ran into some traffic. It seemed that Saturday was a busy day for the port at Dover and long lines of big old trucks were inching their way into the port. We were able to detour out of it and no problem with it the rest of the day.

We walked from White Cliff Visitor Center, which provides free parking, to the South Foreland Lighthouse and back. The path meanders through naturally preserved fields where many species of wild plants and flowers grow. It stays mostly close to the edge of the cliff top, revealing a beautiful rocky shoreline. Along the way, we could see the French islands in the hazy distance and many ships plying the water, some of which we found out later to be ferries running between Dover and Calais on the French side, about two hour each way. It was a marvelously wonderful excursion, reminding me why I keep going back to the English coast.

One thing I have learnt about the English weather is its changeability. The wind started to pick up paces as we drew closer to the light house and it continued to grow on the return trip. There were also some very muddy spots on the path. A warm jacket, hat and good walking shoes are must for the jaunt.

Dover’s proximity to France has made it a strategic location historically. Along the path, you’ll find remains of underground shelters from WWII. Fan Bay Deep Shelter is one that is open to visitors Apr. to Oct. Its entrance is cut into the cliff face that falls on one of the multiple holes on the cliff. On the return trip, we ventured into the hole, walked down a deep incline then climbed a short but steep path to get up and close to the entrance. Interestingly the hole was somewhat sheltered from the wind that had become quite biting. The climb back up was short but again very steep, so much so that once we reached the top, I couldn’t see the path from up there. A bit scary thinking back.

It seemed that we beat the crowd this morning.  We crossed path with few people until it was almost halfway on the return trip. By that time, the sky had dimmed into a shade of light grey. As we reached Dover Castle, it had turned into a deeper grey and started to sprinkle.

No shade of grey however can diminish Dover Castle’s formidability. Impressively formidable it is.  It is also the first of this type of castle that I had seen that was still structurally sound and complete. A castle built in 12th century by Henry II, it is a complex of a robust center Keep plus two defensive outer walls spread across the hill top that overlooks Dover Harbor. As you start touring the tower, you’ll learnt some very intriguing history. Although not original, the indoor arrangement reveals an interior of its time that was interestingly colorful. A climb to the roof top of the main Keep aka the Great Tower is a must, it is where you can fully appreciate the advantage of its location, its extensive layout, and wonderful view of harbor and town. To our delight, we also found not far from the castle and just outside of its inner wall the ruin of a Roman light tower which is largely intact and a restored Saxon Church. There are other interesting structures on the hill as well but we did not have time to visit on that day.

Sunday morning came and there was no sign of the weather improving, same greyness that prevailed the previous two afternoons. But that wasn’t going to stop us. We drove around to explore a bit and quickly went back to Castle Hill. Passing Dover Castle and White Cliff we drove further eastward, hoping to find that spot in a residential neighborhood where I got a blurry glimpse of a mysterious white cliff lurking between the houses when we drove by in the evening of Friday. We did find it. It seemed close by but there was no sign indicating what it might be and how to approach it. We drove on to a road that seemed heading the right direction, ignoring a sign that read “Road Close Ahead”. We quickly lost sight of the cliff. Driving on, through zigzagging, narrow lanes, passing houses haphazardly built on the hill side, we ended up at a stunning spot; we had stumbled upon St Margret Bay. It was windy. Waves slashing the concrete wall sent splashes high and far. I got hit a few times and a taste or two of the salty water. At the end where the waves were fiercer than the rest, two brave surfers were testing their crafts. At the corner across the bay, sat a fantastic white house between the cliff and a small beach, it was dreamily picturesque.

Back at Dover Castle, it was obvious the wind affected the hill top more than any other part of the town because of its altitude. At first, roof top of the main Keep was closed. A bit later, the entire Keep had to be closed due to the danger of the “vortex” of wind formed between the main Keep and the inner wall. Although the rest of the ground was still open, it wasn’t fun walking around in the chilly wind. So naturally our visit turned underground.

There are many underground tunnels at Dover Castle. The set of tunnels that were built pre Napoleonic War on the sea side of the hill is a sprawling underground complex. The guided tour is very interesting and focuses on the importance of these tunnels during WWII. The medieval tunnels are close to the Keep and not as extensive, as far as we could see. By the time we went to these tunnels, most visitors have left the castle, and we found ourselves the only ones in these dimly lit old tunnels, not one single guide was in sight either. To heighten the atmosphere, a few outside windows/doors were broken in spots and I could hear the wind howling. As impressive as the tunnels were, I wasn’t going to linger. Nonetheless, it certainly added to the mystique and impressiveness of this already very impressive castle.

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