A month ago I’d left New Zealand for the adventure of a lifetime. I’d stopped a while in Italy, cruised through France by train, and now finally I’d crossed the channel and arrived in Dover, gateway to the United Kingdom. United at last with some long lost cousins, I settled in quickly and was soon ready to seek out the local historic attractions in this port town of 30,000.
Luckily my arrival coincided with the opening of a new walking trail around town – the Bluebird Heritage Trail. Surely this should serve as a good introduction to local history!
To get to the appointed meeting place, I headed into town via the River Dour Greenway. This walkway led me along the clear stream which was once a wide navigable river which powered many mills. In consequence it became very polluted but in the 1990s efforts were begun to clean it up and now it has become a wildlife haven, full of trout and birdlife.
The opening of the trail was to take place in the town hall or Maison Dieu, originally a rest site for pilgrims en route to the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury (remember that name, because we’ll meet him again). In the Victorian era it was purchased by the town and converted into a town hall, and some of the older architecture is still mixed in with the 19th-century conversions.
Inside, the walls were covered in portraits and old weaponry on display, while ancient banners hung from the ceiling. I mentally added this hall to my list of places to flee should the zombie apocalypse occur because at least I could go out epically waving an ancient sword.
I was apparently slightly late to the party but did catch the tail end of the opening speech. It is hoped that this trail will hope to revitalise interest in Dover, something which is sorely needed according to just about every local I’ve spoken to so far. While this town and its iconic cliffs are famed the world over, very few visitors stop to hang around. “They just get off the boat and head straight on to Canterbury!” is the oft-repeated lament. “Dover is dying, there’s nothing here!” is the more pessimistic view.
But judging by the crowd that showed up here today, one thing Dover doesn’t lack is locals keen to get involved in its heritage.
Speech over, I picked up my guide and “passport” and headed a few metres down the road to the Dover War Memorial. The highly symbolic statue of a youth clutching a flaming cross while thorns entangle his feet was unveiled in 1924 to commemorate Dovorians who fell in the First World War, and was updated for the Second World War and wars since. Currently there are 10 panels of names, and we can only hope that no more will be required in future..
In the garden behind a large hook is mounted on a concrete block, relic of the 1918 raid on the Port of Zeebrugge by the Dover Patrol.
Heading back past the Maison Dieu, the trail led me around a corner to Dover College, which used to be St Martins Priory and presumably the reason the train station and other nearby landmarks carry the name “priory”. Like the Maison Dieu it also still has some remnants of older architecture mixed in with the Victorian updates.
Next stop was St Edmund’s Chapel, a tiny almost-800-year-old church nestled in what was once a cemetery to the poor but is now the centre of town. It was forced to close after the Reformation in 1534 (in which England officially moved from Catholicism to Protestantism, partially to satisfy Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce) and was “lost” – concealed by surrounding buildings – until finally revealed 400 years later when a Second World War bombing raid demolished two of the obscuring buildings. This opened the way for the building to be restored and once again used for services.
I tried to inconspicuously follow some fellow trailsters as we headed through the narrow St Edmunds Walk on to Biggin St, as I was still fairly unfamiliar with the town and didn’t want to get lost. Apparently I wasn’t as subtle as I hoped because they soon suggested I join them and henceforth my navigational worries were at an end.
Together we headed for the building which contains the excavated remains of the Roman Painted House, which dates from 200AD and is unique north of the Alps. We couldn’t stay, but I noted it as somewhere I must soon return.
Then we reached Market Square at the town’s centre. Here you can find the museum that houses a spectacular bronze age boat which was found under a nearby street in 1992, although most locals’ most enduring memory of the museum is the enormous stuffed polar bear which was brought back from the Arctic in 1897.
Tucked away in a corner is the excavated ruin of St Martin Le Grand, completely out of sight until you climb the ramp leading to the Dover Discovery Centre. Built in the seventh century, this church and self-sufficient monastery grew to rival the Canterbury Cathedral in both power and magnificence. But it too was a victim of the Reformation and was pulled down over the following centuries, with its stones being recycled into other buildings in the area.
After posing for some photographs at the behest of a reporter for the local paper (and feeling like a celebrity) we headed down Castle St. Unlike Dunedin’s Castle St, it does not seem to be known for student parties and couch burnings (perhaps I should introduce my new Dovorian friends to this Kiwi tradition?), but does feature a somewhat familiar row of terraced houses. Also unlike Dunedin’s Castle St, it actually features a view of the local castle, which dominates the hill above the town. Don’t fret, dear readers, because although I couldn’t visit the castle today, I will not leave Dover without exploring it!
At the end of the street we found Dover’s oldest surviving pub, the White Horse Inn. This serves as the “local” for swimmers making the Channel crossing and features the autographs of successful Channel swimmers on its internal walls and ceiling. Unfortunately it was covered with scaffolding and closed so photo ops had to wait for another day.
Nearby is the preserved ruin of the Old St James Church, a Norman church which was closed in 1862 but restored in 1869. Unfortunately it was one of many victims of the 464 bombs and 2226 shells which fell on Dover during the Second World War and has stood in ruins ever since.
Reaching the promenade by the shore, we headed eastwards for a short distance towards the busy harbour, the iconic white cliffs rising above us. At the base of the cliff, the remains of Henry VIII’s Mote’s Bulwark can be seen. I was somewhat surprised to learn that this infamous monarch did more than just collect wives and mess up the church, but in fact this fortification and many others on the English coast were built to defend against still-Catholic France and Spain in the event that they strenuously objected to Henry’s reforms.
Reversing course, we headed back to the west and along the seafront, picking up a free beverage at the Pebbles Kiosk and checking out the many memorials along the way. Quite a few commemorate particular events in the Second World War, including the evacuation of Dunkirk, the bravery of merchant seamen and Operation Fuller. Dover’s position so close to France meant that it was particularly entwined in wartime events and often endangered.
Other memorials pay tribute to Captain Matthew Webb, first to swim the Channel, and Charles Rolls, first to cross the Channel both ways in a single flight.
At the far end of the promenade is a marina complete with historic hand crank crane dating from 1868.
It was here at the far end of the promenade that I received the stamp to my trail passport proving I had completed the walk up to this point. It’s not often I get official recognition for completing a walk! There are some optional further stops, but my head was buzzing with new information already. I thanked my new friends and headed away with a much better understanding of the town I’m now calling home.
Already I was wondering what my next adventure would be – the white cliffs, the castle, or maybe a long trek through the English countryside? Whatever I choose, I can be sure I won’t run out of places to go while I’m here!
Bluebird Heritage Trail by The Dover Society