Secret Wartime Tunnels

I woke up bright and early today for Thea’s breakfast. Actually, I would have woken up bright and early anyway–bright being the key word there. The B&B was really lovely, the rooms were nice and very clean, but the curtains were thin. With all that sunshine streaming in, I woke up naturally by 7:00. It was another miraculously sunny day. Come to think of it, those curtains are probably fine 98% of days in England when it’s grey and rainy out. I was lucky!

Thea made me breakfast.

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It was just the two of us. She seemed a little sad that people didn’t come down for breakfast too often. I was correct in that she does run the whole place basically by herself. It’s the house she grew up in. She converted it to a B&B so she could stay with her children while still working. Her husband is a sea captain so most of the time it’s just her. Her daughters are getting older now and they’re about to go off to college. One wants to spend a summer in Japan.

I would absolutely recommend St Alban’s Guesthouse to anyone who is passing through Kent. It’s just a really nice place run by a really nice woman. She held onto my luggage all day, which is (literally) quite the load off. The weather forecast was wonderful again, so I decided that I didn’t need my coat either. The weather was chilly when I left the house, but I knew I’d warm up walking and it would get warmer later in the day.

I found a pedestrian path to the Dover Castle. I don’t think it was the main entrance, but it deposited me right by the Secret War Tunnels. This was my main interest. These tunnels have had a lot of different purposes over history. They’re literally carved behind the cliff walls. The chalk is easy to excavate but also structurally sound. I think they were originally built as barracks when the castle couldn’t accommodate all of the troops it needed. Since then, they’ve been used as storage, as the headquarters for the British navy and army, as barracks again, as a hospital, as the command post from which the evacuation of Dunkirk was organized, it housed the telephones and telegraphs that put out thousands of decoy messages with false information about D-Day, and it was even set up to be a regional government seat in a post-nuclear southern England, if that ever were to happen.

There are miles and miles of tunnels, so tourists aren’t allowed in without a guide. Also, there’s no photography allowed. Tours leave every 15-20 minutes and last for about 45 minutes. Now, there is very little that I love more than a good guided tour. This was not a good guided tour. You are run from empty room to empty room, and in each one you watch a movie that you really could have watched anywhere. Even in the rooms where the evacuation of Dunkirk was organized, the entire focus of the tour, you weren’t allowed to stop and look around. They projected movies onto the walls that made it impossible to really think about what went on there. It was just too much stuff going on.

It was an amazingly cool experience, I just had really high hopes for it that weren’t quite met. I love history, especially military history, so it was an excellent stop. There were also little exhibits about the evolution of the army’s uniforms and lots of that classy English propaganda. Mum’s the word!

The hospital section of the tunnels was a different tour. Much like the first one, they really don’t give you any time. Rather than movies, there was just an ongoing soundtrack of what people might have been saying. One empty room was formerly used as an operating theater, so in there you listen to a surgeon ask for a scalpel. Also, you’re hypothetically there during an air raid, so it’s all meant to seem like it’s being run on the shoddy backup generators. The lights were dim and went on and off. This section of the tunnels is so humid that, in order to preserve the artifacts we were looking at, everything had to be covered in some kind of chemical so it wouldn’t rot. That’s what the guide told us, anyways, and that’s why it smelled so strange. It was really interesting, though. I just wish the tour had been more thorough.

The secret war tunnels had a little too much information (the number of airplanes, tanks, and troops of the Allies and the Germans took about 5 minutes of videotime to explain) and the Hospital tunnels had a little too little about the life, times, and procedures. People lived in the hospital tunnels as well. I would just hate to live that far underground.

Instead of rushing about Dover, I decided to have a leisurely day and really take my time at the castle. Unfortunately, I was freezing after being in the tunnels. The sun was out, but it was windy and chilly at that elevation. I decided to skip the walk around the battlements and instead went around to various indoor exhibits about English history and the likes. There was one very interesting gallery about the Queen’s Regiment. This is also the first time I’ve really heard the revolutionary war mentioned in England, and it’s funny to see how they talk about it. It’s called The American War for Independence, for starters. All the language about it seems to say “hey, we didn’t do anything wrong, they didn’t do anything wrong, they just wanted to be independent and they really shouldn’t have won the war but they did.” They had to point out that they won almost all of the battles, even though they did eventually lose the war. It was interesting to see the different perspective.

I went to the main castle as well. It is one of the earliest buildings on the site. Of course, it’s not older than the Roman Lighthouse, which was also pretty cool to see. But, the castle: if I remember correctly from the educational video, it was built by Henry II after he had the Archbishop of Canterbury assassinated to improve his reputation. It’s been updated several times since then. There was a roaring fire on one of the upper floors, so I stayed there for a while to warm up and read the little catalog I’d bought about the war tunnels. The view from the top of the castle is spectacular. The town of Dover sits between it and another large hill.

I was really tired by the end of all this, so I headed back down towards the town. As I was leaving the castle the way I had came, something was different…

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Sheep.

I love sheep. Between the castle walls, where there was probably once a moat, sheep were just everywhere. And so close! I didn’t expect that. It was very exciting.

I planned to hang around Dover for a few hours and then catch a train home at 7. However, as is true for most small towns, there’s really nothing open in Dover on a Sunday evening. I felt like it had been a full trip, and I was sleepy and tired, so I decided to call it a trip and head back a couple hours early. The train ride back was good, uneventful. Lots more sheep in the countryside, but suddenly there is an abundance of tiny white baby lambs. They look so cute flying past my train window, I really want to adopt one. Or just have one to play with for an afternoon. I can’t believe I ate lamb for dinner last night! Just kidding, I can totally believe that because it’s delicious.

It feels good to be back in Brighton. I really needed that trip. Even with all my traveling, I really haven’t spent much time outdoors lately. I certainly haven’t seen much sun. The weather and landscape of Dover was absurdly picturesque. I feel refreshed and re-energized (in that utterly exhausted kind of way) and I think that now it’s shaping up to be a good week ahead.

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that disgusting ferry port, obstructing the view

that disgusting ferry port, obstructing the view

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"trail" down the side of the cliffs

“trail” down the side of the cliffs

shipwreck

shipwreck

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