Road Trip Through History: Dover

Image courtesy of Webzoloo via Creative Commons

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.

Dover to Calais--almost no distance at all

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. (
  • 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. (

A Dance Through Time

Those of you who know me In Real Life know that I'm as passionate about dance as I am about history and that I never met an art museum I didn't like. So it's not surprising that I was quick to say "me, me" when Shelf Awareness was looking for a reviewer for  a quirky little book from the Bodleian Library that combines all three.

In A Dance Through Time: Images of Western Social Dancing From the Middle Ages to Modern Times Jeremy Barlow uses images of dance drawn from medieval manuscripts, dance cards, sheet music, instruction manuals, satirical prints, and news photos to discuss changing standards of decorum and sexual license as displayed on the ballroom floor.

Barlow moves us not only through time, but across class barriers.  He contrasts the stately movement of courtly dance styles with the rowdier mores of rustic dance.  He traces the development of social dance from circle dances to couple dances, explaining just why the waltz was such a shocking innovation when it was introduced into polite ballrooms around 1800.  He considers the use of dance imagery in social satire related to the rise of the middle class and discusses the inherent tension between dance and illustrations of dance.

Barlow links his range of illustrations and themes together with the recurring image of the bent, raised knee, with which he both opens and closes the book, citing images as separate in time and as united in meaning as the Egyptian hieroglyphic for dance and a 21st century cartoon symbol for bad dancing.  Roughly one-third of the images in the book share this element, which Barlow uses as a device for discussing issues of class, decorum, and desire.

A Dance Through Time will appeal not only to readers interested in dance history, but to those interested in dance as an element of social history.

This review appeared previously in Shelf Awarenesss for Readers


Road Trip Through History: Canterbury*

Image courtesy of Hans Musil via Creative Commons

My Own True Love and I began our two weeks in England with a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. We did not find a bawdy Wife of Bath**, but there were plenty of tales.

The most famous Canterbury tale is the murder of Thomas Beckett, archbishop of Canterbury. Beckett was a hard partying buddy of King Henry II. When the then Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1161, Henry gave his friend, Thomas Beckett, the job. To Henry’s unhappy surprise, Beckett took the appointment seriously. He transformed himself from a pleasure-loving rowdy into a serious clergyman who was prepared to defend church privilege against secular incursions—even those from his old friend Henry. Archbishop and King butted heads for nine years. Then, in a moment of frustration, Henry cried out “Will no one rid me this turbulent priest?” This is not the kind of thing kings should say out loud unless they mean it. Four knights took Henry at his word and hacked Beckett to death in his own cathedral during vespers. Soon thereafter, people reported miracles occurring in the cathedral. The pope canonized the murdered archbishop.*** And pilgrims began to travel to Canterbury from all over Europe.

The Beckett shrine is moving, but the stories that really got me were those told in the small scale memorials installed along the sides of the nave recognizing British soldiers who died in wars large and small. A woman who lost her husband and four sons between 1905 and 1915, all highly decorated officers and all killed in battle. A lieutenant colonel who died on August 17, 1808, “while British Arms were successfully supporting the cause of Portugal against the usurpations of France”.**** The officers and men of the 13th Prince Albert’s Light Infantry who perished “whilst serving in Afghanistan, between the years of 1838 and 1842, whether from the fatigue of service or in action with the enemy.” The stories, in short, of men who are anonymous on the pages of history, but who are remembered in stone.


* You could argue that it’s stretching the definition of road trip when the journey starts with a transatlantic flight. But we have a car and My Own True Love is doing a splendid job of driving on the other side of the road. Feels like a road trip to me.

** Though I would argue that My Own True Love rivals Chaucer’s Knight in “chivalry, truth, honor, freedom and all courtesy”.

***Miracles or no miracles, this strikes me as a canny political move.

****A disproportionate number of memorials honor lieutenant colonels--the highest-ranking officers likely to be involved in front line combat, then and now.


A few travel notes for anyone interested in making her own pilgrimage to Canterbury:

  • Organize your stay to include at lease one meal at at The Goods Shed, a farmers’ market with an excellent restaurant. (The butternut squash-goat cheese tart was so good I groaned with delight at the first bite.)
  • Attend evensong at the cathedral. You’ll find the service moving even if you don’t believe or are a hard-shell Protestant.