Friday, June 22, 2001

Walk 23 -- An historical day in Dover

Ages: Colin was 59 years and 45 days. Rosemary was 56 years and 187 days.
Weather: Hot and sunny, but with a little breeze in exposed places.
Location: Dover.
Distance: Nil.
Total distance: 142 miles.
Terrain: Climbing up, in and around ruins.
Tide: In.
Rivers to cross: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: Nos. 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 at ‘Western Heights’.
Pubs: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: No.4 at ‘Western Heights’ and no.5 at Dover Castle.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We packed up our camp at Folkestone Warren and drove to ‘Western Heights’ in Dover. After looking round there, we drove to Dover Castle.
At the end, we drove home to Bognor.

Western Heights is a huge fort and barracks built more than two hundred years ago. Although in the care of ‘English Heritage’ it is open to all comers and seems fairly neglected. It was first built during the American Wars in the late 18th Century because most of Europe sided with the Americans against the British and therefore Dover was at risk. When Napoléon set his sights on crossing the Channel at the beginning of the 19th Century, the complex was enlarged and fortified. The trouble was, by the time it was completed, the Americans had been comfortable with their independence for nigh on fifty years, Napoléon had been defeated at Waterloo and so the whole place was obsolete!The fort is built underground in the chalk hill. There had been a large and ornate entrance gate just down the road from where we parked (with lovely views overlooking Dover) but it was completely blocked up. You can walk all over the grassy slopes on the top, but I don’t think anyone has been inside for years.
We crossed the road and went up a steep path to look for the redoubt we had seen marked on the map. There was a circular walk way-marked, so we set off straight ahead through the trees. It was quite dark in there, and we soon realised that this was because there was a high wall (at least 20 foot high) either side behind the undergrowth—in fact we were walking along a deep man-made brick-lined ditch! We came out in a grassy ‘moat’ that completely surrounded the redoubt which itself had been sunk into the hill so it was unobtrusive.
We walked all round, but there was no way in although someone had tried to prise off one of the doors. Again, I don’t think anyone has been inside for years. The grass had been mown, but it was all a bit spooky because the high walls on either side of us cut out most sounds and there was no one else about at all.
On the south side there is a steep gully overlooking the harbour. The path led us down this a bit, then up to the top of the wall surrounding the redoubt. From up there we could appreciate how big the whole structure is; they didn’t build things by halves in those days!
We walked back along the top to the car park, then drove a few yards down the road looking for the ‘Grand Shaft’. This, too, seems all hidden away. A road leads down to it, but we had to park by a barrier and walk. The barracks built there were reduced to their foundations as recently as the 1950s with a few steps left in to get to different levels, and amongst the weeds we found a lovely group of orchids! At last we came to the top of the ‘Grand Shaft’, but this was all fenced off and is only open on certain afternoons in July and August–we shall just have to come back!
The ‘Grand Shaft’ is a unique triple spiral staircase built inside the cliff. The idea was to get as many soldiers as possible down to the harbour from the barracks in the shortest possible time in the event of invasion, hence three staircases built into one hole.
But the soft chalk kept caving in on itself during construction, and in the end they had to line it expensively and time-consumingly with bricks. By the time it was properly finished (like everything else here) it was obsolete because the threat of invasion was past. So they used it as a convenient route to travel from the barracks into town, and, mindful of their social class, each staircase was decreed to be for a different set of people. One was for officers and their ladies, one for sergeants and their wives and the third was for soldiers and their women!
And so we drove across to Dover Castle on the eastern side of town. This is one of ‘English Heritage’s’ premier sites so all their energies (and money!) are concentrated here. It is very popular, but not too many people on a weekday during school-time. The school parties were mostly on the point of leaving by the time we arrived, so they didn’t bother us unduly. We ate our sandwiches while sitting on a platform overlooking the harbour. We could just make out France in the haze on the horizon, but when we left several hours later, the Continent was much more visible.
We visited the Roman lighthouse, one of the oldest in the country but not still in use! We explored the medieval passages which was quite fun. We were the only people down there, the floor was uneven and poorly lit, and every so often we would come across a high spy-hole letting in a stream of daylight – definitely spooky!
We had to go down spiral staircases, round corners and up little flights of stairs, and eventually we were in a set of underground rooms with locked doors to the ditch outside. We thought the final room would be the way out because it seemed better lit than the others, but when we got there we realised the light was coming through some wire netting which served as a high ceiling, and we could go no further. It was like being at the bottom of a well! We had no choice but to retrace our steps, up and down stairs and all.
We visited the castle proper which was originally Norman but had been altered and added on to in subsequent centuries. They had an audio-visual exhibition of a visit made by Henry VIII when he was worried about a Spanish invasion in the early 16th Century, shortly after he had broken with Rome and set himself up as Head of the Church in England. The Spanish were upset because he had done this in order to divorce his Spanish wife. It was an excellent exhibition and we found it very interesting–not at all like the boring museums of the ‘old days’!
We did not visit the tunnels because we have been on the guided tours twice before and we knew we would not have time today. They were dug out of the chalk cliff, one level being used as an emergency hospital during the Second World War and the other as a communications centre. Conditions of work in both were primitive, to put it mildly, but both were an essential part of the war effort. In particular, the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 was masterminded from here. There is a third level of tunnels which was dug in the 1960s and fitted out with enough supplies to last twenty years. This bunker was designed to house the Mayor and all the local bigwigs in the event of nuclear war, which Colin and I remember very clearly being a real threat in 1962.
The trouble was, they lined the tunnels liberally with asbestos in the days before anyone knew anything about asbestos poisoning. They are now considered so dangerous that no one is allowed to enter them without breathing apparatus, and although ‘English Heritage’ want to open them up to the public, they have no idea when they will be able to do this. It seems ironic that all the people who thought that they were important enough to be ‘saved’ would have died a long lingering death in the dark from asbestosis and illnesses caused by contaminated water, while the rest of us unimportant plebs would have been blasted to oblivion in a nanosecond!

It had been a very interesting day–why was History at school always so dull? We had a couple of cups of tea from our flasks in the car before leaving for home. We shall pick up Walk No.24 next time at the Dunkirk memorial on Dover Marina where we finished Walk No. 22.

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We returned to the Western heights two months later because we knew the ‘Grand Shaft’ would be open.
We entered from the top, I went down the ‘Officers and their Ladies’ staircase while Colin went down the ‘Sergeants and their Wives’ one. The only difference was that mine was the only one of the three staircases which came out directly into the access tunnel–the other two came out in the well in the middle involving three extra steps to walk across it!
It was not as deep as we had envisaged because we had to descend a straight staircase before we reached the entrance to the triple stairwell. We did wonder if the top had collapsed during the building of it because it is in quite a hollow. We descended 200 steps altogether.
We had a long chat with the custodian at the bottom. I asked him why such a unique place was open so infrequently, and he replied that we were only his third customer all afternoon! I said it should be advertised more widely. He then told us about the drop-redoubt which we had visited in June. He had been inside it, and he said it is almost perfectly preserved as it used to be in the 19th century!
It would make a fantastic museum, but ‘English Heritage’ don’t seem interested in investing any more money into it. It wouldn’t take much because almost everything is still there, but it would probably take custom away from Dover Castle which is one of their premier sites. Meanwhile, plants are making cracks in the brickwork, ornate facings are falling off and vandals are breaking inside to wreak havoc. He especially mentioned the beautiful sunken entrance to ‘Western Heights’ where all these things are happening, it is a crying shame.
We then returned up this unique stairwell–this time I chose ‘Soldiers and their Women’ while Colin ascended ‘Officers and their Ladies’. It was great fun!