Dover is wonderful.
I woke up early today to have time to pack and get ready. I was too excited to sleep, and one overnight doesn’t take much packing, so I arrived at the train station far too early. The extra time really worked out to my advantage, though.
When walking to the station, I saw a man ahead of me stop and start to rifle through a bin. I thought this was a bit odd, but as I drew closer I realized that it was a recycling bin full of books. Now, I’ve been really wanting a good book lately, so I stopped and joined him. His name is Greg. He passed over Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which I decided was the one for me. I was delighted to have a new book, and just in time to read on the train.
It was sunny today, as it is every day that I leave Brighton. I was just hoping the same would be true for Dover.
When I got to the station, I thought it might be wise to grab a bottle of water. The 1 liter bottles were 2-for-1, so I felt pretty well set for the day. I got started on my book while I waited.
I took the first off-peak (and therefor cheap) train, which left Brighton at 10:30 and got me into Dover just before 1:00. I had smartly packed myself a lunch for the train so I could make the most of my afternoon once I arrived. A pb&j, a red bell pepper, an apple and a bag of chips. I sat down across from a young man who looked busy with his mobile electronic device.
The train ride was quite enjoyable. I had never actually gone to the east of England, so the country side was different than what I was used to from the short trips I take to London and back. I hadn’t realized I was used to any of the English country, honestly. I do still love all the sheep and horses. I chatted a bit with the man across from me, who turned out to be from the Czech Republic. He is studying in a town near Dover. He had visited Dover himself a few times and assured me that I would love it.
I arrived right on schedule. The train ride had me a little worried as it became quite overcast en route, but when we arrived in Dover the sun was smiling. My B&B was supposed to be right across from the train station and very near the ferry ports and center of town. As it turns out, all three of these things are in opposite directions. Dover is just a really small place. The castle is always in view, because it’s atop an incredibly high hill on one side of the town. I started walking in that direction and towards the city center, hoping I’d see my hostel so I could drop off my bag. I didn’t see it, but made the silly mistake of following B&B signs quite a long way in what I knew was probably the wrong direction.
Eventually I decided my B&B must be back towards the station somewhere, but had already gone so far out of my way I didn’t want to waste time going back. I started heading back towards the coast, where I knew the cliffs would be. I fortified myself with a coffee and shortbread and continued on with my adventure.
There are two things you need to know about Dover. First: I had expected the town to be on top of the cliffs. Not right near the edge, but like an Italian hilltop town, elevated. This is not true. The tiny town of Dover is located at the bottom of an enormous hill (or small mountain) of which the cliffs make up one side.
The other thing you need to know is that Dover is first and foremost a ferry port. A massive, ugly, disgustingly dirty, poured cement thing eats up the coastline nearest town. Behind it, you can glimpse the cliffs.
Still not sure how to get on top, I stopped in a seafront hotel to ask directions. I was close. I just needed to cross the street and follow the signs.
I walked along a highway-type road that lead vehicles into the ferry port for ages. I was diverted for half a block behind a sad row of houses that faced the freeway. It feels amazingly like you’re going the wrong way, especially as I was the only person in sight. You then take a pedestrian path below the main ferry thoroughfare, and arrive abruptly at a very picturesque little footpath. There is enough foliage on each side to forget for a moment you’re in a depressing network of roads like a massive parking garage. Things start looking up, you start ascending, and then they look down again when you start going back down hill and pass under yet another freeway.
This is the last underpass, though. Now you begin a grueling hike uphill. Maybe it was naive, but it didn’t expect my trip to the white cliffs of Dover to involve mountain climbing. I considered regretting my choice of footwear and dress, but it’s not like I own anything more appropriate. I felt that my only mistake was buying that 2 litres of water and the weight of my bag. The trip upwards was exhausting, and when you get to the top you’re merely at the entrance to a car park. The person taking money gave me a map, and onwards I went towards the visitors center.
At the visitors center, I stopped to see if there was anywhere they could store my bag. They don’t really seem to have storage facilities. However, I was sweet and my bag is small, so they stashed it in a back room for me. It was 2:00. The visitors center was open til 5:00. This was just enough time for a leisurely walk to the far lighthouse, if I took a bus back.
The visit greatly improved after this. The weather was lovely and warm, when you were walking. There were surprisingly few people about. The views were just sweeping, and when I got to the first real view of the cliffs I was atop it was just stunning.
On the map there was a small side path that lead to some steps. The steps went all the way from the top of the cliffs to the beaches below, where the remains of a shipwreck were abandoned on the beach. I figured I had enough time to go down. I’d never seen a real live shipwreck e before, and I’d come all that way.
The label “stairs” on the map is questionable at best. There are no stairs. There is a precarious, steep path that winds its way back and forth along the face of the cliff. The are railings the whole way down, but the path itself was often no wider than my foot. It was uneven and rocks were loose. My knee started to hurt again for the first time in months.
However, I was rewarded before I even got to the beach. Right before the ladder that took you the final 20 feet, there was a tunnel in the side of the cliff. Secret war tunnel? It was fairly long with two terraces looking out onto the sea, but it didn’t seem to lead anywhere. Quite mysterious.
I descended to the beach and made my way to the shipwreck. A few children were asking their parents questions about it that the parents couldn’t answer, when an older gentleman stepped in. He explained that it was the remains of the SS Falcon, a steamship that wrecked off the coast of Dover in the 30s. It was carrying a cargo of matches from Belgium to Dover, and spontaneously caught fire just outside the harbor. The entire thing was quickly engulfed in flames and the ship abandoned. The blazing ship drifted through the harbor and eventually stranded itself on the strip of beach below the cliffs. The reason that the remains have lasted for so long is that they were made of wrought iron, not steel.
I went over to talk to him as the family moved on. The man knew so much because he grew up in Dover and lived nearby. Ships had always been a special interest of his, and building models was his hobby. He had brought a hacksaw with him because he wanted to take a tiny piece of the iron back to use in one of his models.
I asked him about the tunnels,and he explained that they used to be searchlights during the Second World War. It was too dangerous for enemy aircraft to fly so low and so close to the cliffs, so they were safe from attack. Very smart.
After we parted ways and I was still hanging around the wreck, he came back over to me. He was very excited to have just found two pieces of coal that were clearly from the engine of the ship. There would be no other reason for coal to be in that area. He gave me a piece to take home as a souvenir, which I am very glad to have.
The walk back up the hill was tough going. Again, I didn’t expect to be climbing mountains today.
At the top, I saw a man sitting on the edge of a cliff. I was startled and a little frightened, but edging a little closer I realized he was just on a shelf and had his feet on a wide ledge below. His camera was as long as my arm. I asked him if I could join him and struck up a conversation. The view from this perch was the best yet.
He is a bird photographer and showed me the peregrine falcons he was watching. You can see his work in some magazines,or on his blog here:
He was a really interesting fellow and we had a nice chat. I got to see where the falcons were nesting. Apparently, they’re rare to see inland but they’ve slowly started moving into man made structures like bridges and cathedrals.
I kept moving along the cliffs, realizing I needed to get along to the lighthouse if I wanted to catch a bus back to the visitors center in time to get my bag. However, around the next bend I saw another man sitting at the cliffs edge. I subtly made my way nearer to see what kind of view he had found. Truly, every view is stunning from up there.
He made a comment about the view, and I ended up sitting down and having a good chat with him too. Oliver is an Englishman, but had never been to Dover before. He had always wanted to, and came down today just to get away and clear his head. He works as an actuary for Ford. Apparently, I’m one of the few people he’s met who actually know what an actuary is.
We walked back together to get my bag. At that point there was no time to make it all the way to the lighthouse, but it was no real loss. I could see it in the distance and honestly, I’ve seen lighthouses before. The cliffs and the company is what I was interested in.
The chat was so interesting we decided to carry on in town over a coffee or a drink. I tossed my bag in his trunk and we drove back down to Dover. I was really glad not to have to walk all the way back down that weird monster hill.
Downtown Dover is tiny. Dover is tiny. We thought about going to Costa Coffee, a Starbucks-esque chain here in England (although they have Starbucks too). But I really like going to local businesses when I travel. I like to give a little back to the community, as well as experience more of the local flavor. We ended up in the Prince Albert pub. There are a lot of things named for Prince Albert here, which makes me wonder if the dirty slang meaning is a purely American phenomenon. Unfortunately, we were there at 5:00… Kareoke started at 7:30.
After a glass of wine and a diet coke, we moved on to find a place to eat. We ended up in a small, quaint bistro called The Alloment. I had a fabulous crying lamb… Crying because of the juices that dripped from it onto the potatoes as it was slow roasted all day. How could you resist? It was amazing! We actually both had it. The service was the best I’d had since being in Europe. The whole staff was very friendly and attentive. Since their wages don’t depend on it like in American restaurants, I believe this means the staff must really be very happy. It was a great dinner.
I convinced Oliver that we ought to go back to the Prince Abert to watch the kareoke. It’s honestly something I’ve been curious about for a while. What are the standards of British kareoke? Surely not American classics like Piano Man or Don’t Stop Believin’.
It turned out to be a great place to people watch, but perhaps not to get a temperature for English kareoke culture. We were the youngest people in the bar by 20-30 years for the better part of the evening. I did sing a couple songs and the old English men were really sweet, although I got the feeling that no one had heard of Pat Benotar before.
It was a completely fabulous day in Dover. Oliver dropped me off back at my hotel,which we found quite on accident when just looking for the train station. This is one of the nicest, cleanest places I’ve been since I arrived in England. It was cheap, too. And my room has an electric kettle, with complimentary tea and coffee.
One woman seems to run the place. Her name is Thea. She can keep my luggage here for me while I explore the town tomorrow. You have to order the night before if you want breakfast in the morning, which I definitely do. My first B&B experience has to include breakfast… Plus, it will get me out of bed early and be the most efficient way to get out the door and maximize my time in Dover. She told me that she’s making breakfast, and it looks like it’s just going to be the two of us. Cute!
Honestly, based on my experience so far and how awesome and cheap this hotel room is, I’m tempted to stay another night. My train ticket is an open return for the next month. I probably won’t end up doing it, but we will see what tomorrow brings. So far, I am loving it here.