Dover is the reason My Own True Love and I headed to England. I had questions related to one of my personal writing projects that could only be answered on the ground.
We weren’t expecting much. The guidebooks all say something along the lines of “this workaday town has lost whatever luster it once had” and blow it off as worth no more than a day trip from London. To which I say: wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s true that Dover lacks the picturesque charm of Canterbury,* but it also lacks all the tacky, touristy bits. And it has two attractions that will keep any history nerd happy.
We spent our first day at the Dover Museum. It is a small museum with a solid, if slightly old-fashioned, local history exhibit–beginning with the Roman invasion and ending with World War II. The museum makes it clear why Dover was considered the “lock and key of England” for centuries.
Only twenty-some miles away from France, its history can be told in terms of invasion, invasion fears, and fortification. Dover’s role as England’s first line of defense didn’t end when Louis Blériot flew the first airplane across the Channel and landed near Dover Castle in 1909; the first bomb dropped on England in WWI, on Christmas Eve, 1914, landed in Dover.
Local history would have kept me happy**—after all, that’s why we were in Dover. But the Dover Museum also has a Big Deal Exhibit: a well-preserved Bronze Age boat that was found near the Dover shoreline and is considered to be the oldest know sea-going vessel. (To put it in context, the boat is a thousand years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza.) Dover has done an excellent job exhibiting the Bronze Age boat. They’ve provided cultural context about Bronze Age Britain, a fascinating discussion of how archaeologists extrapolate data from an incomplete find,*** and what they learned from building a copy of the “complete” boat using Bronze Age tools. Bottom line: ancient people were crossing the English Channel in frighteningly little boats by 3000 BCE.
But wait, there’s more!
We spent our second day at Dover Castle, an English Heritage Foundation site that draws day-trippers from London and tourists across the Channel from France. Henry II built the castle between 1180 and 1185 to impress the European princes and churchmen who began to come on pilgrimage to Canterbury after the death of Thomas Beckett. When King John (of Magna Carta infamy) lost Normandy in 1204, Dover Castle became England’s frontline defense against invasion. From the 1500s on, the castle was rebuilt and updated with every invasion scare–up to World War II, when an existing system of tunnels was expanded into a bomb-proof shelter that housed Britain’s naval headquarters.
The English Heritage people have done an excellent job of bringing the castle as it was in the time of Henry II to life, without turning it into a Disney attraction. (I have nothing against Disney, just not in my history, please.) A small, clever exhibit tells visitors how Henry built a great kingdom and how his sons lost most of it. The castle itself is full of “yes, please touch” reproductions of period furniture. Projected images and voices of its twelfth century inhabitants talk about their lives. (I particularly liked the disembodied voice of the seneschal doing the castle accounts in the corner of the castle “office”). The docents are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I must admit, I passed on the tunnels, which include an exhibit of the Dunkirk evacuation. (Tunnels give me the willies.) My Own True Love gives them a thumbs-up.
Because we are indefatigable readers of historical markers and My Own True Love is a vintage aircraft enthusiast, we also tracked down the monument to Blériot’s landing. The design of the monument is actually pretty cool, but finding it felt a bit like a snipe hunt. Only for the true believers.
* Because it got bombed in WWI and WWII.
** I was particularly taken with sand table models showing the development of the harbor over time. The Dover Museum also introduced me to a historical event that deserves its own blog post: the French invasion of 1216. Keep your dial tuned to this station.
***Which would be pretty much all archaeological finds.
Travel notes for those who want to storm Dover Castle
- Our stay was greatly enriched by the knowledge and enthusiasm of our hosts at the Amanda Guest house, Mike and Anne McFarnell. If a room is available and you’re a B & B fan, it’s the place to stay. (www.amandaguesthouse.com)
- The English Heritage Foundation offers 9 and 12 day passes for overseas visitors at a reasonable price. If you’re going to two or more English Heritage sites, it’s well worth the money. ( www.english-heritage.org.uk)