Wednesday, October 3, 2007

7 July: York to Dover on a Sunny Day

We were served up a traditional English breakfast in the Acer Hotel's quaint dining room; the coffee was particularly good. We checked out at 9:30 and I took the wheel again, driving out of town and hooking up with the M1 motorway. We had figured on a 4-hour drive to Dover, which would give us most of the afternoon to explore the castle and WWII tunnels. We were so wrong.

First of all, as luck would have it, our last day in England was the only day of the entire trip that it didn’t rain a drop. Unfortunately we spent most of it in the car. Somewhere near London we got caught up in a traffic jam caused by a major accident (although it was mostly cleared up by the time we passed it). Then it was just one long traffic jam all the way around London on the M25 (and we’re talking miles outside of London, on a Saturday afternoon). At one point Susie shunted us off the motorway only to deposit us in another traffic jam on city streets, then routed us right back onto the motorway. The final long delay was caused by the toll gates on the Queen Elizabeth Bridge over the Thames. When we finally got past the bridge and turned onto the A20 to Dover, the traffic disappeared and I was able to pick up the pace to 75-80 mph (along with the rest of the equally pissed-off Brits, some of whom were going upwards of 100 mph). But the damage had been done and we didn’t get to Dover until nearly 4 pm, the drive having taken 2.5 hours longer than we anticipated.

The town of Dover is not much to look at – it was largely destroyed in World War II – but the sprawling castle on a cliff above the town was an amazing sight to behold as we approached from the south. We drove right past our B&B, deciding to head straight up to the castle so as not to waste any time. We parked in one of three huge surface lots near the top of the hill and stopped at the visitor center (our English Heritage passes got us in for free), where they told us to visit the keep and casements first, as they were both closing at 5 pm (the keep was closing for a wedding – how cool would that be?)

Dover Castle is a quintessential medieval fortress, the square towers and massive walls of the inner bailey (right) conjuring fairytale images of knights in shining armor. Construction began on the castle under the Norman King Henry II in 1181 and much of the main structure, including the keep, dates to this time, although many additions were made over the ensuing centuries. We rushed through the myriad stone corridors, spiraling staircases, and high-ceilinged chambers of the keep, making our way to the very top of the battlements for a spectacular panoramic view over the castle’s outer defenses, Dover’s harbor and cruise ship port, and the sparkling blue English Channel.

We were a bit confused by what they had told us in the visitor center about the casements; I thought they were referring to the medieval tunnels on the south side of the fortress, so we went there next. We explored the maze of subterranean passageways and cannon emplacements, trying to imagine what it must have been like to hide out in the tunnels during a siege. Then we went down to see what we could see of the World War II tunnels, figuring that they were closed for the evening as it was now well past 5 pm. As luck would have it, we arrived just as they were allowing one final group through on a shortened tour, which we were able to join. And we were so glad we did! The tunnel complex was constructed at the end of the eighteenth century during the Napoleonic Wars. Dover had become a garrison town and the army needed additional barracks and equipment storage. The solution was to carve a maze of tunnels into the cliffs below the castle, which housed more than 2,000 men at the height of the wars and are the only underground barracks ever built in Britain. The tunnels were abandoned for more than a century after the wars, but found new life at the outbreak of World War II, when they were converted first into an air-raid shelter and later a military command center and underground hospital. In May 1940, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey used the tunnels as his headquarters for the legendary evacuation of some 383,000 British troops from Dunkirk, France, known as Operation Dynamo, an effort which effectively saved the British army to “fight another day.” Ramsey joined the British army at the age of 15 (by lying about how old he was) and retired after fighting World War I, but was brought out of retirement for WWII. After Operation Dynamo he went on to help plan the naval attack on D-Day and was killed in a plane crash in France in 1945, just before the end of the war. The secret tunnels and rooms spanning five levels are outfitted to look just as they did during World War II, including the telephone exchange with its enormous switchboards and the Coastal Artillery Operations Room full of charts and schedules (one of the ops rooms is pictured above). The whole place gives an absolutely fascinating snapshot of the war effort.

After our tour of the tunnels we went out onto the battlements, where a statue of Admiral Ramsay looks out over the Straits of Dover. Buffeted by a fierce wind, we took in the view of the white cliffs of Dover (Yes, we finally saw them!) and watched a cruise ship come into port (photo, right). We walked around the gun emplacements on the outer curtain wall and returned to the center of the castle complex, where the imposing hulk of a 1st-century Roman lighthouse stands next to an 11th-century Saxon church, surrounded by the massive grass-covered earthworks of a Norman hill fort (photo, below). We were finally politely shooed out just after 6 pm and made our way back to the car. We were literally among the last visitors to leave, so at least we milked our meager two hours at Dover Castle for all we could.

We drove down the hill to the Castle Guest House, parked on the street, and checked in. As we walked in we caught a glimpse through a doorway of an extremely messy living room, where some of the guests appeared to be enjoying afternoon tea. The proprietor was polite, if a bit gruff, telling us that our car was fine parked where it was on the street, and leading us up a rickety staircase to our room near the top of the house. In a nutshell, the only redeeming quality about this place is its location at the foot of the castle hill (you can see the roof of the place on the left side of the photo below). I had trouble finding a decent place to stay in Dover (the only place listed in Fodor’s, a 4-room B&B, was booked by the time I made my reservations) and in the end I think we would have been better off staying at one of the chain hotels along the waterfront. The Castle Guest House has actually been given a 4-star ranking by some outfit called Enjoy England, and all I can say is: do not trust their rating system! Compared with the many types of accomodations we have experienced throughout Europe, we would give this place 1½ stars, 2 at best. The room was cramped and musty, with a double bed covered with a rather dingy red satin comforter. The tiny bathroom had seen better days, with a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling for a light fixture. John said he's been in gas station restrooms that were nicer. Perhaps most bizarrely, the room had the strangest wallpaper I have ever seen – a repeating pattern of peach-hued roses, and next to each rose was scrawled the name of an exotic plant that had absolutely nothing to do with a rose, like “Rhododendron Himalayas” or some South East Asian shrub. The whole place had a bit of a Twilight Zone feel to it.

On the bright side, the information booklet in our room recommended a great Indian restaurant called Light of India only a 5-minute walk away. It was supposedly voted one of the ten best Indian restaurants in England. We ordered vegetable samosas and two combination platters featuring sampler-sized portions of several curries, tandoori chicken, tikka masala, lentils, and raita. We were totally stuffed afterwards (with wine, £45 pounds) so we took a walk along the pebbly beach afterwards to work it off. The castle stood out in sharp profile against the evening sky above us, and we could see the arched entrance to the secret wartime tunnels set into the chalky white cliffs.

Aside from having one of the busiest cruise ports in the world, the town of Dover itself is, sadly, positively dead. Some shortsighted post-war planners destroyed the waterfront with a huge, hideous apartment complex that ruins the panorama of the castle above the town and there is practically no downtown to speak of. A sign posted in front of the ugly apartments pretty much says it all: it is titled "Historic Dover," but the plaque has been ripped off and the empty box that is left is disfigured with graffiti. All that remains of the waterfront is a grand old hotel, now a Best Western (which likely would have been a far better choice for our lodging!) (photo, right). We couldn’t believe that a place boasting such a spectacular castle and housing so much fascinating history could be so run-down and dismal. Dover Castle is definitely worth a visit, but we suggest spending the night elsewhere. Honestly, if we hadn’t pre-paid for our room (and had already reserved Euro Tunnel tickets for the next day), we would have been tempted to just drive on home!

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