Towns / Cities Visited: 88
Countries Visited: 21
Steps Taken Today: 19,009
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,771,885
Another day, another castle to be visited, and soon we were up and on our way. Today’s destination, the largest castle in England; Dover Castle. The site has had some sort of fortification on it since Roman times, and is seen as the key to England due to its hugely strategic defensive placement, and its proximity to mainland Europe. The beautiful stone complex which stands upon it today, however, began as a keep with two defensive walls; a construction which started in the 11th century under the direction of King Henry II. Since then it has expanded greatly. It was originally a royal residence but in later centuries it also acted as a military outpost for the British army, both during the Napoleonic wars in the 1800’s, and, more recently, during the second world war.
We parked our car, alongside the plethora of others, in a makeshift car park they have set up in a nearby paddock. The booming business of the castle was unsurprising given the fact that it was currently summer school holidays, and the castle was hosting a medieval festival to attract families. Regardless, we found a park easily, and were soon bundling out. Now the benefit of parking in this rather out of the way location was that it was actually uphill from the castle, and thus upon unloading from the car we were treated to a rather spectacular view of it.
Making our way into the complex, through one of the main gates in the centuries old walls, we picked up our tickets, which we had pre-purchased weeks ago, and a map, and hurried quickly off to visit the war tunnels first. We had been tipped off by the family last night that this is the busiest attraction of the castle, as entrance is by guided tour only and they only allow small groups in at a time, so we decided to get it out of the way first, before the latecomers arrived. They weren’t wrong about the line, which was already starting to snake down the hill, but luckily we only had to wait 15 minutes, as we just managed to fit into the next group.
Now, these underground tunnels were originally dug during the Napoleonic wars to accommodate troops, and to store weapons, ammunition, and provisions. Aside from this, they are best known for their use as an air raid shelter and as the headquarters of Operation Dynamo during the second world war, which saw Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey direct the evacuation of British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in France, after they became surrounded by the German forces. The guided tour lasted about half an hour, and was a pretty spectacular walk through the tunnel, with audiovisual presentations set up in the rooms to tell the story of the daring rescue mission which resulted in the saving of over 300,000 troops in the space of eight days. The most impressive part of the entire mission was not the naval destroyers and vessels which rescued large numbers of troops, but rather the 850 small boats which were either requisitioned by the government, or given with the permission of the owners, and sailed to Dunkirk, at times under enemy fire, in order to rescue soldiers. This was necessary due to the shallow waters at the beaches meaning that it was impossible for large ships to come close to shore. These were not military boats though, they were fishing boats, yachts, and pleasure boats; they were not armed, except for any guns that the navy officers assigned to them brought with them. Most were sailed by military crews, but a small portion were sailed by members of the public. Brave men who risked their lives, going into a situation for which they had no formal training, in order to save their fellow countrymen. A truly heroic deed if ever I’ve heard one. If you want to get a sense of what I’m talking about, I would highly recommend watching the film Dunkirk.
With the tunnels complete, and the sun almost at its peak position, we hurried off. You see, our visit just happened to coincide with one of their most exciting medieval festival events; the jousting tournament. Hurrying up to the main green space just outside the defensive wall of the keep, we stopped at one of the food vans that was set up and grabbed a couple of burgers; boar and venison, you know, to keep in with the medieval theme. Finding a perch up on the hill, we ended up with a rather good view over the top of the crowd, and settled in to watch the tournament. Now, for everyone who’s only ever seen jousting through the medium of film, I will confidently assert to you that it is not even remotely that organised and flawless in real life. For one, horses are somewhat more unpredictable, especially when you are asking them to run towards another horse with a long stick flying towards them. As a result, there was more than a few false starts when one horse began their run along the barrier before the opposing knight was ready. Secondly, I think we all forget just how hard it is for knights to actually see out of the minuscule slit in their helmets. I mean, obviously it has to be that way to prevent any part of the oncoming lance from impaling them through the eye, but it means that in reality the knights are kind of sat there in the blind until their squire hands them the lance and points them in the right direction. As a result, you should be unsurprised to discover that there are a lot more misses than hits. I mean you try wrangling an unruly horse, and wielding a more than 9 foot lance while trying to hit a small moving shield with 90 percent of your vision blocked. Despite all of that, it still made for an exciting bout of lunchtime entertainment.
With the tournament over, and a quick ice cream purchase, we hurried back to the other set of tunnels which run above the ones we had just visited, and which were used as a makeshift hospital during the second world war. Unlike the other tunnels, these are seen through a self guided tour, and as such, there was no line. The rooms are decked out as they would have been during the war; full of slapdash hospital beds, and rudimentary medical equipment. There is even an old operating theatre, for more serious injuries. In a world where we are generally used to super sterile hospital environments, its hard to imagine being brought in here, into the dark and the cold, scared and injured. I have much respect for all of the doctors and nurses who tried their best to save, and comfort, the thousands of shell shocked men who had to be stitched back together after the ravages of war, and who would never be the same again; and did so when often still under enemy fire.
From here we finished our look at the military aspects of the castle by visiting the old fire command post, from which soldiers on duty would use flags to communicate with ships in the harbour, and keep watch for any approaching enemy vessels. During times of war this post was manned around the clock, as Dover’s close proximity to the mainland meant that it was most likely to be the location of a foreign invasion. Behind this post also sits an old anti aircraft gun, used to take down enemy planes which might endeavour to bomb the harbour, the town, or the castle. From here we headed over to the display they have on the many wars Britain has fought in over the centuries, as well as displays of many of the military medals which are awarded to soldiers in this country, and a good few stories of noteworthy events and people which came out of the horrors of these wars. As much as I disagree with war, and as much as it saddens me to see the seemingly never ending array of battles we create, it was heartwarming to see stories of some of the acts of bravery and friendship which surface during these troubled times.
With all of the mindless bloodshed out of the way, we made our way into the keep. Stepping away from more modern times, the keep is decorated in a medieval style, to try and give a sense of how the castle may have looked in its heyday as a royal residence. From the old kitchen decked out with a massive cauldron, and many a barrel and earthenware jug; to the great hall, throne room, small private chapel, and bedchamber all dressed up in bright colours and faux medieval furniture. We so often think of the past as a dark and dreary time, and I think it is important to be reminded of the fact that medieval era in particular, was a time of many eye catching hues. Although the majority of the interior fixtures are not original, the more than 100m deep well, is just as it was when it delivered water to the residents in bygone eras. Climbing to the top of the keep to complete our visit, rewarded us with a stunning view of the castle complex below, and the seaside town of Dover that it overlooks. There isn’t a large amount of information here, but there is a little about King Henry II and the bitter family disputes the father and his five sons, as they all scrambled for lands; tensions which almost destroyed the rule of the family in both Britain and France.
At this point, given some misinformation provided by the wonders of the internet, we were concerned that we would miss entry to the visitor area of the White Cliffs, and thus we hurried off to our car, figuring we could come back and finish the castle later, because lets be honest, you can’t come to Dover and not go an see the cliffs. As we arrived at the car park of the cliff walk area, we discovered that it was only the visitor centre that closes at four, not entrance to the walk. Thanks google. Slightly irked, we hopped out of the car, and made our way down to the cliffs. Any annoyance we had was taken away by the sight of these majestic famous cliffs. When they say white cliffs, they mean white, like the sun shining off them kind of hurts your eyes kind of white. The contrast between the white of the chalk cliffs, and the rich green of the grass which tops them is truly a remarkable sight, and it was the backdrop for the next hour or so of wandering the walking tracks. As we meandered along the path, we took a moment to look off into the distance seaward, at the French coast just barely visible on the horizon. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for those hundreds of thousands of trapped British soldiers who could almost see home, but were instead surrounded by impending doom, praying for a miracle.
Eventually we circled back to the car and drove the short trip back to the castle. Now, the benefit of driving back this late in the day was the fact that we were now able to park at the castle itself instead of having to go to the overflow car park and walk back. The additional benefit was, of course, that there was almost no one left at the castle on our return, and we were treated to a good hour of being almost the only ones visiting the last remaining sights we hadn’t managed to fit in yet. This included the old lighthouse, which dates back to Roman times, and which was restored in the 19th century; and next to it, the church of St Mary in Castro, which was built by the Saxons in the 7th century, and was restored and refurbished in medieval times. We also made our way over through the medieval tunnels in the castle walls, which were created during the Siege of 1216 and used for defensive purposes to protect the most vulnerable side of the castle. Filled with rows of cannons to decimate the enemy on the other side of the dry moat, they certainly give a whole different feel compared to the weapons of more modern warfare we had seen in the morning.
Sadly our day had come to an end, but on the up side we had managed to fit in everything we had hoped to see, and with that in mind we happily drove back to Jenny’s house. The gracious host she is, she had even cooked us dinner, which made a welcome change from having to sort out food after a busy day of exploring. After a long soak in the bath to soothe some of the stresses of such a hectic day, I was soon happily relaxing in bed.
As I thought about all I had learnt for the day, my mind drifted back to those civilian men, on their little boats, heading into a firestorm they barely understood. It takes great courage to run towards danger with a gun and a whole battalion behind you; it takes even greater courage to sail a small unarmed pleasure boat towards a beach surrounded by enemy soldiers when you have no military training, in order to save men you’ve never met from death. This is true heroism at its best. I know that there wasn’t many of these boats that were sailed there by civilians, but even if it was just one lone fisherman who risked his life in that way, its a story worth retelling through the ages.
Many people believe that everyone is only out for themselves, that humans are, and always will be, inherently selfish. However, if we study the actions of soldiers and civilians during times of war it is easy to see that the reality is somewhat different. The brave men and women who serve in the military forces readily sacrifice their lives for their country, or to protect the innocent people of foreign nations; and in every war we find stories of soldiers risking their lives to save or protect their comrades. There are also many a tale of civilians who have run into danger when under attack to save vulnerable people. The fact that there are people who will take a literal bullet for another, proves irrefutably that this assumption of ingrained selfishness is by no means true in all cases. These stories must serve as a reminder to us that we are all capable of great acts of compassion, and great acts of bravery; a reminder that no matter how small we think we are, we are capable of changing and healing the world with our choices and our actions; a reminder that we all have the potential to be a hero.