SIMON BILL’S WORLD
Come on a journey into Simon Bill’s world… Simon is our writer in residence for the festival with a project comprising three strands:
Firstly, as a BLOGGER: writing a regular blog recording and responding to the project and its contributors.
Secondly, as a CURATOR and ORGANISER of publications and online EVENTS in which Dover’s writers – poets, journalists, and local historians – respond to Dover’s people and complex socio-political profile through the prism of its geography, history and culture.
Thirdly, as an EXPLORER: by leading exploratory walks engaging with Dover’s hidden treasures.
BIOGRAPHY Simon Bill is an artist and writer based in Dover, educated at Central St. Martins and the Royal College of Art. He has exhibited widely and has been represented by Cabinet Gallery (London), Stuart Shave/Modern Art (London), and Patrick Painter (Los Angeles). In 2014 his first major museum show, titled ‘Lucky Jim’, was at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. In 2011 his novel BRAINS was published by the ‘art writing’ imprint MUTE. In 2016 a fully revised version of the novel was published by Sort of Books under the title Artist in Residence; its TV & film rights were acquired in July 2020 by the production company Corestar Media. Bill is a regular contributor to TURPS magazine. The most recent issue features a dialogue with painter Phil King, an appreciation of the show of Antonin Artaud’s notebooks at Cabinet Gallery in 2019.
EXPLORER: A look back at the wonderful walks lead by Simon on 21st of August and 2nd of October 2021, aptly entitled Forgotten Dover and More Forgotten Dover.
01.10.21 Too Much History
I’ve lived in Dover for three years and I still haven’t been to Dover Castle. I’ll go there eventually, of course, but only after I’ve explored all the historic sites round here that you can go and see for nothing (it costs 22 quid to get in). I reckon it’s going to be a while – meantime there are frequent reminders of this little plan. I can actually see it through my bedroom window, and I often pass close by when I’m out exploring, on my ways to and from various other places. Sometimes I will discover a new view of the castle having, say, reached the top of a hill, turned a corner, or stepped out of some woods.
In the ‘about’ section of the Dover History Facebook pages its administrator, Paul Wells, speculates that we might actually have ‘too much history’ here. There’s so much of it we can’t look after it properly. (This abundance could almost excuse the very poor historical knowledge of the self-styled guardians of our heritage against anything foreign or modern.) There is so much of it, physically, that there doesn’t seem to be enough room, and it creates something like a gigantic storage problem. Take the spectacular archaeological discoveries of the Classis Britannica, the Saxon Shore Fort, the Roman Baths and the Roman Painted House. All world class archaeology, and the painted house is the only one currently above ground. The rest of it was discovered and then buried again.
Visiting the small museum called, and containing, The Roman Painted House, was a key feature of the introductory tour given to me by my prospective landlord. He showed me round the house I now live in, obviously, and then he suggested we look at the museum at the other end of this short and narrow road near the middle of Dover. The building itself is a strictly utilitarian concrete block structure with a flat roof. There wasn’t the money for anything more elaborate, but it definitely does the job of protecting the archaeology. And a sense that the most is being made of very limited resources continued as we entered, had a lovely chat with the volunteer lady at the desk, and carried on in to the museum itself. There are various archaeological finds on display, bones and pots and so on, some laid out in cardboard box lids on makeshift trestle tables; but the main interest is this ‘painted house’. That is, the remains of a substantial, high status Roman building with murals. There’s nothing like it north of the Alps, apparently. In fact, only the lower 3 or 4 feet of the painted walls survive, but that’s a near miracle. There’s a history of reckless and thoughtless destruction of buildings here (more of that later), but property developers aren’t the only ones responsible. Or not the first. This building was partially demolished by the Romans themselves in order to build something else on top. But, paradoxically, and in ways I don’t fully understand, this is what we have to thank for the survival of the bit that does survive.
The story of this discovery in 1970, and the building of the museum, is positively heroic. Having found this ancient structure the archaeologists found, also, that local government bodies were uninterested, and were not keen to dedicate much in the way of resources to it. So, they raised funds to have this museum built around it. And then, when it turned out that even the cheapest estimate for the actual building of it was too expensive, they built it themselves. This possibly explains why the head archaeologist Brian Philp, who is still the director of the museum, is thought by some to have an overly defensive, rather embattled, sense of the relationship of the museum to outsiders. Getting it done was a heck of a battle.
To begin with the museum was a success. Very respectable figures for visitors, and it did attract a certain amount of funding. Not much though. Now the Roman Painted House is chronically underfunded and a bit decrepit, and people around here will lament that. Of course. But some of us enjoy neglected museums. That’s my favourite sort. When I was a student at the Royal College of Art in the 80s the painting school was an annexe in the V & A building on Exhibition Road. I often used to go to the museum for a bit, just for a break from painting (we were all hard workers, doing all these paintings that weren’t going to mean anything outside of that time and place, because the RCA painting school was an anachronism, and so was London then, several years before Saatchi and the yBa’s livened it up). The whole museum was great (still is), but my favourite part was the ceramics collection on the top floor – huge rooms with huge display cabinets full of rare china. I never saw another soul. And I loved that smell. Another favourite was the Horniman Museum in South London. It’s been done up now, but I used to walk there from my council flat in Peckham Park Road, miles and miles, to spend time with the wonky stuffed animals and creepy deep-sea specimens in glass jars, displayed in a weird combination with the collection of musical instruments, lutes and virginals and spinets. Again, just me there, and that museum smell. Seeing the Roman Painted House for the first time was like coming home.
The unusual problem of Dover’s surfeit of history is best illustrated by the account of the Roman Painted House given on a local history website by the memorably named Lorraine Sencicle. Local history in Dover isn’t like other towns. Most of this substantial text reads as you’d expect for local history, apart from an early reference to ‘dark days’. It gives an excellent introduction to the complex subject of the Romans in Britain, the significance of their foothold here in Dover, and the subsequent history and archaeology associated with these events. Everyone involved has great names – Reverend F. C. Plumptre; William Batcheller; Edward Knocker; Reverend Puckle. Most recent and most significant of these figures is Brian Philp.
The actual course of events is hard to follow, even in this admirably lucid account, but what it seems to boil down to is a nasty mixture of local government corruption and incompetence, and the ruthlessness of developers. A lot of archaeology happens when new building is about to take place, and the demolition of one structure offers an opportunity to look at what was underneath before the new one goes up. Here the archaeologists belonged to a group established especially to address this sort of problem – the Kent Archeological Rescue Unit (KARU), led by Brian Philp. So, the potential for some conflict is pretty clear, because you have two very different sets of priorities focused upon a single space. It got nasty.
The beginnings of this were around the groundwork for the York Street bypass in 1971. For a long time the received wisdom had been that the only significant Roman fort here in Kent was the one at Richborough near Sandwich. The archaeology conducted ahead of the building of the bypass showed that this was not true. They found a Roman fort, of the kind that they would build only as part of a major port. And a lot else besides. It’s an important site, and the developers were ready to destroy it. It was resolved more or less satisfactorily, but only after some dramatic confrontations between the archaeologists and the mechanical diggers, sent early in the morning to do the job quickly and catch them out. The bypass was replanned so as to preserve the remains of the fort. Basically, they reburied the fort and made the road go over the resulting hill. Not ideal, because, obviously, it’s all hidden away again now, but certainly better than just destroying the whole thing. And a singular success of the archaeologists was the preservation of the Roman Painted House, which is now a stone’s throw west of the bypass.
The next confrontation is the bit of this story that the author had alluded to earlier with her ‘dark days’. This has to do with plans to try and capitalise on Dover’s history with a development to be called the ‘White Cliffs Experience’. This project involved, amazingly, new buildings that would have destroyed parts of the ancient buildings that were supposed to be drawing the tourists here. It was like a plan to actually shoot yourself in the foot (and a lot of it was successfully carried out).
In January 1988, having seen the damage that was about to be caused by this crazy plan, Lorraine Sencicle – local historian, trained nurse, economics professor at Canterbury University – decided to stand as an independent candidate in a local by-election with this ill-conceived development at the top her manifesto; and the darkness began: ‘Reading my diary, the copious statements and letters of that time, the nightmare for me started on the day it became known I was running as a candidate. The telephone rang and when I answered a popular ballad was playing. This happened on a couple more occasions and then a man spoke – the same ballad was playing in the background. His voice was friendly though he did not give his name. Instead, he advised me to pull out of the election and put a distance between myself and the archaeologists. He rang several times, always the same music was playing in the background (and) made assertions about the archaeologists. Namely, that one did not receive any remuneration so therefore was an amateur (and) had created a cult following. Further, the supposed ruins under the proposed WCE development were not what the archaeologists claimed them to be.’ This was the beginning of a campaign of intimidation involving local press, local government, the developers appointed by local government, the police, and a rival group of archaeologists brought in to try and discredit those who had made the discoveries. The phone calls stopped, then started again, an ‘authoritarian sounding woman this time’, saying the same sort of things as the man, and the same ballad playing in the background. They wanted her to withdraw from politics. They wanted her to testify against certain archaeologists. The police cleared Dover District Council of corruption and the campaign escalated: ‘An attempt was made to have me compulsorily admitted into a psychiatric unit by my husband…’
The development went ahead. The White Cliffs Experience was officially opened in 1991 by Princess Anne, and was closed due to its economic failure in 2000. Lorraine Sencicle retains a strong interest in Dover’s history, posting regular articles on her website, The Dover Historian, despite her stated belief that Dover has been ‘…deliberately destroyed’. She lives in Wiltshire.
There is a paradox here. Or there is for me, anyhow. I both deplore and appreciate the neglect. I loved those museums I used to visit in London, and I love the neglected Roman Painted House. Compare that to the award-winning Weston Park Museum in Sheffield that I used to visit with my small daughter. The problem there was that the prizes were for all the design solutions, 19 million quid’s worth. The café is OK I suppose, and the gift shop is OK for a gift shop (they’re all the same, really), and the museum itself is, I think, pretty bad, because it didn’t occur to anyone to spend any of that 19 million on buying something worth seeing. The collection just isn’t much good. There’s a stuffed polar bear they inherited that they decided to make the focus of an Inuit themed section. I used to sit there, all forlorn, while my young daughter, yet again, tried to find some interest in the interactive ‘build your own igloo’ feature – some off-white blocks made of a rubbery material. Neglected museums are better because you go there to look at the things they have. There’s no obligatory ‘interactive’ component. Looking at something interesting is real interaction. You don’t need to do it wearing a plastic Saxon helmet, or operating a pointless interactive joystick, or ticking boxes on a daft ‘visitor response’ form you’ve been given.
The Dover Museum, in the town square, gets it about right, I think. The collection is modest, apart from the spectacular bronze age boat with its own dedicated gallery. They were digging near the shoreline when the A20 was being made in the early 90s, and the remains of a large sea-going craft were discovered very well preserved in the mud. This stands out as a respected and therefore properly resourced project here. They managed to save it from falling apart once it was taken from its resting place underground, and it’s now in a huge vitrine in its own gallery, surrounded by associated finds and models. This is the oldest sea-going craft anywhere in the world, and the inherent interest of the objects themselves is recognised and respected in the manner of its display. Very worth a visit. And all the lesser objects are dealt with in this quite restrained way too – The case showing finds by the White Cliffs metal detector club; a case of Neolithic tools; four excellent detailed models of Dover through the ages; a Nazi V1 flying bomb hanging from the ceiling. (Something I especially enjoy in the first room is a pair of life-sized models of two of Dover’s earliest inhabitants, an ancient Briton and a Roman general. For some reason, while the Roman looks dignified, and quite dull, the Briton, shirt off, with his plaid trousers and blue tattoos, the long taches, the sword and shield, seems obviously drunk. He’s leaning forward, and his eyes are drooping, as if he’d decided to have a bracing drink before that battle with Roman legions, and really overdone it.)
This problematic contrast between the maintained and the neglected (and the potential threat of too much in the way of resources) is shown very clearly in the state of another of Dover’s abundant historical riches, the string of forts on the Western Heights. It all belongs to English Heritage, and I sometimes wonder what they must do at the English Heritage offices when the question of what to do with them comes up. Perhaps they just don’t mention it. There are three forts, one you’re allowed to go to, one your probably not (people do though), and one you’re definitely not. I’ve described the Drop Redoubt elsewhere, so I won’t give as much detail here as it certainly deserves, but, in a nutshell, it’s a fort constructed, not upwards, like Dover Castle, but down, like the Maginot Line. They started it during the Napoleonic Wars, then stopped when it was still not finished but Napoleon had been beaten. Then they started again in the mid 19th century when there seemed to be another threat of French invasion. The troop’s accommodation part is a network of tunnels and brick-lined caves inside the body of the Western Heights, and the outer defence is a massive ditch or dry moat, 50 foot deep, with sloping revetted walls of flint. It’s huge, impressive, and hidden. You can’t see it unless you’re right in it, and not that many people know about it. And its current excellent state of preservation is the result of the hard work of a group of volunteers. It stands as a tribute to the virtues of parsimony. There are no resources other than people’s love and goodwill, so the Drop Redoubt looks great, and, crucially, no attempts have been made to ‘improve’ it by making it into something called e.g. ‘The Drop Redoubt Experience’ or whatever. The signage is a bit knackered, but who cares? There’s nothing interactive here. No gift shops or cafes. It’s the thing itself. And its sister structure, the Detached Bastion, demonstrates still further the great advantage of there being zero cash. The volunteers have their hands full with the Drop Redoubt, so the Detached Bastion is left almost wholly unmanaged. It’s off limits, technically, but people get in to it all the time (for reasons nobody seems to recall, it’s known locally as ‘Old Smokey’). Now, the reasons for these visits are often not ones you could really approve of – it’s got a lot of graffiti, lots of adolescent party crap like cans and poppers and whatnot. But it’s still a place of great beauty and wonder. It’s a sort of contained jungle, a miniature forest of tall trees and ferns and mosses congesting the deep slot in the hillside. There’s so much about it that you couldn’t really justify, but it’s a marvellous place even though, perhaps even partly because, it mixes majestic architecture, rampant nature, and vandalism. The vandals aren’t corporate vandals. They’re just annoying kids who will, I’m sure, in a few years, mostly have grown up and learned to be a bit more considerate, and not leave their crap everywhere. (The third fort by the way, The Citadel, is well maintained in an unconsidered, official sort of way, with short grass and razor wire, and apparently has just been sold to some developer.)
There are so many of these places and things in Dover that you’ll pass constantly, and which are of terrific historical interest, and that nobody knows what to do with. A few more examples – On Bench Street by the A20 subway entrance there’s an empty site between Europa Fish and Chips and the derelict Castle Amusements building (on its other side this building used to have a Banksy painting satirising Brexit, which somebody, possibly Banksy, has had painted over). There’s just green painted hoardings there now, but it used to be a restaurant that was destroyed in a fire in 1977. The restaurant was called The Crypt because it was in the basement of the building which actually is a crypt – it belonged to St Martin le Grand, a significant Norman church that seems to have pretty much fallen down by the 17thcentury. Seven people died in the fire, including several children and a fire fighter. The Norman crypt still exists, but it’s just been left ever since.
If you walk along the A20 as it follows the sea front you can see a lot of waste land, all weeds and rubble, and at one point there’s a kind of large brickwork terrace at the foot of the cliffs. It’s easy to miss because it’s so neglected, but if you do look you can see that this is, or was, a structure of some quality. It’s called Mote’s (or Moat’s) Bulwark, and it’s a platform for artillery placed there in the reign of Henry VIII to protect the harbour. Most people just never notice it.
At the other end of the sea front on Snargate Street, at the foot of Western Heights, is a quite a grand gated entrance to what seems to be just an archway in the cliff. This is the Grand Shaft, an extraordinary structure that typifies Dover in so many ways (but I won’t describe it now, because I did that in Blog 3). One final local marvel I’ll mention (there are loads). The Roman Baths. There is a large green field between York Road (the bypass) and the town square. It’s fenced off and almost always kept padlocked. Apparently there is a full Roman baths under the grass, one of those places they discovered, looked at, and buried again.
There has been one organised attempt I know of to somehow accommodate the full scope of Dover’s history. Pencester Gardens is the green space in the middle of town, venue of a lot of daytime drinking. In 2001 they built a bandstand (?), and surrounding that is The Millenium Path, which is 100 inscribed flagstones, each commemorating a historical event. There can’t be many places that could muster a list of historical events that long. Yes, there’s some padding (the Dover marquee company was founded in 1900), but most of this is of real significance. I won’t list all of them, but here are a few that stand out for me, each starting with the year AD:
120 Two Roman Pharos lighthouses built (one of those is just a few rocks now, but the other one is in the grounds of the castle, and easily visible from my allotment – at 15.8 metres high it’s the tallest surviving Roman structure in Britain, and one of three Roman lighthouses anywhere)
200 Roman painted house built
1066 Norman invasion – Dover sacked and burned
1216 Siege of Dover Castle by Louis, Dauphin of France (I’m intrigued by a character called Eustace the Monk, a pirate and mercenary who fought on both sides in this conflict, and who was eventually beheaded by the English – changed sides once too often)
1295 St. Thomas of Dover martyred (must look in to this)
1348 Black Death devastated town
1532 Composer Thomas Tallis worked at Dover Priory (his Spem in Alium, temporarily spoiled by a crappy soft porn film, is the greatest work of art this country has produced)
1588 Spanish Armada fled through straits of Dover (not so well known – the next year an English Armada attacked Spain, and was totally destroyed)
1605 Shakespeare visited Dover, writing cliff in to ‘King Lear’ (Shakespeare Cliff used to be the place where they executed criminals by throwing them over)
1606 Dover Harbour Board formed (and still very unpopular locally)
1621 First Huguenot refugees arrived (I gather they have mostly found work, and have now assimilated reasonably well)
1642 Civil War – castle seized by Parliamentarians
1805 Grand Shaft commenced
1852 Charles Dickens lived in Dover
1875 Captain Webb swam the channel (the rest of his life seems to have been less successful, and he died trying to swim over Niagara Falls)
1909 Louis Bleriot – first cross channel flight (if you’ve seen that film ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’, a lot of it was filmed here)
1910 Charles Rolls – first return cross-channel flight
1918 Dover Patrol Raid on Zeebrugge (the idea was to trap German U-boats in the Belgian port by sinking ships in the harbour mouth, but it was a bloodbath, and didn’t really work)
1940 Dunkirk evacuation (I have a good view of the whole harbour from my allotment, and I often sit there trying to picture this event – it seems impossible)
1944 D Day 6th June (and by then large parts of Dover had been destroyed in constant attacks from bombers, doodlebugs and huge guns that could fire shells across the Channel)
1959 SRN1 – first cross-channel hovercraft (I remember when I was a child the hovercraft was a source of terrific national pride – nobody really cares about them now)
1990 Channel tunnel undersea breakthrough (no more hovercraft)
1996 Cruise liner terminal opened (the one that fascinates me is the Disney themed cruiser that has ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ as its foghorn – just imagine spending months at sea, and everything is Disney themed, all the décor and the food and entertainment and the duvet covers etc.).
Postscript: I started writing this months ago, and I was expecting to add a postscript briefly describing the visit to Dover Castle I was bound to have made by now. Instead, I’m looking forward to exploring the WW2 pillboxes I passed yesterday on my way to Farthingloe Battery. They are of a design unique to Dover, the ‘Dover Quad’, and, apparently, in the event of an actual assault, they would have been death traps.
01.09.21 Tunnels and Caves
In the main part of Dover you’re never more than a few minutes’ walk from somewhere with a tunnel running underneath it. There could be a tunnel directly below me right now. Nobody knows exactly where they all are, or even exactly how many, but it’s a lot. There are maps of quite a few of these tunnels, but no single comprehensive cartographic survey, and nobody has sat down and collated all the information in the maps that do exist. Also, a lot of those existing maps are being kept out of the public domain (we’ll come back to this). It’s as if the whole town had been built above a giant ant’s nest, or a termite colony – a vacant one.
There are man-made caves all over the place, too, some of them huge. If you look carefully at the cliff above the car park by the BP garage that serves the port, on the A20, you can see a crumbling brick ledge with some improvised corrugated-iron hoardings. I believe these disguise an entrance either to the Champagne Caves, the size of a cathedral, with vaulted brickwork ceilings, or the extremely complex network called Hammonds Caves. The caves and tunnels of Dover have been made for various reasons, over thousands of years, often for quite mundane things like storage, or just for somewhere to live, but when the subject of tunnels comes up someone will usually say something about smugglers. It is true that some tunnels and caves have a connection to smuggling, but not nearly as much as people here think, when they think about them at all, which they mostly don’t; the subject doesn’t really come up that much. Most of the entrances to these tunnels are blocked off now, and, even if you’ve lived here all your life, you are very unlikely to have been in one or knowingly seen the entrance for one. Quite a few Dovorians don’t even know they’re there. The caves in Chislehurst, also in Kent, charge 7 pounds entrance – there’s a gift shop and a café and everything. Here, you could easily spend your whole life living within a few feet of a network of passages or a huge cave, and not know. (This thought is, obviously, very rich in potential for metaphors – as if Dover had an unconscious, an invisible repository of suppressed affect or something. But you could say that about anywhere. And this habit we artists have of wishing to characterise anything we encounter as a metaphor doesn’t always enrich anyone’s experience of those things. I suspect that it sometimes does the opposite. Thinking how things can be metaphors all the time interferes with our experience of the actual thing i.e. not as a metaphor, but just as itself.)
Why is it that there are quite so many tunnels? It obviously has a lot to do with the geology combined with whatever it is that makes anybody want to do anything. That is, if we find that we can do something we tend to go ahead and do it. Dover is made of chalk, which lends itself to tunnelling, so people tunnelled. Chalk is soft, so it’s easy to burrow in to, and it’s also stable and strong, so tunnelling is not the complex engineering task it would be in other conditions. You don’t need to prop it up to stop it caving in. Also, for Neolithic tunnellers, chalk had the advantage of being a material that comes ready supplied with the raw material you need to make the tools you need to work it. There’s flint everywhere. If you look at the White Cliffs you’ll see horizontal dark striations, and that’s layers of flint sandwiched between the chalk. There’s so much of it round here it’s a common building material. The churches are often made of flint. I don’t even know if there is a confirmed Neolithic tunnel or cave here, but there very well could be. Most likely, though, if a cave had been made before the Bronze Age, subsequent workings would have taken advantage of that start and the original work would have been lost. Then again, there might be one somewhere around here, lying undiscovered.
There are two excellent sources of information about Dover’s caves and tunnels: one is a Youtube channel called ‘IKS Exploration’, and the other is a book called ‘Dover’s Caves and Tunnels’ by Derek Leach OBE. I found some caves on one of my walks when I first came to Dover and started exploring, and I must have encountered this book at about that time, but I can’t remember which was first. When I was new here I was weirdly keen to get involved locally, so I went to a Dover Arts Development meeting which was held at the White Cliffs visitor’s centre (weirdly, because my usual mode is not to get involved, with anything, ever). I was browsing in the shop there and noticed this book, and later I was introduced to its author, an affable and courteous chap in a blazer. We chatted briefly, and I made a sort of mental note of the book.
These caves I’ve actually been in to, and that I think of as my discovery, are near St Martin’s Battery, a high point above the Western Docks with a great view across the channel. (Men with binoculars sit in their cars in the free car park there, hoping to see a dinghy loaded with immigrants so they can call the authorities and have them detained.) The battery itself, a set of three concrete and brick gun emplacements, is fairly busy as a tourist destination – or busy for Dover. (The area received some attention from the press in connection with the enquiry in to the murder of Sarah Everard. There is a semi-derelict building that was once a part of the Grand Shaft barracks, and which last saw use as a garage belonging to the father of Wayne Couzens. He worked there years ago apparently, and during the enquiry there was a police forensics team searching it. I saw a blue tent behind police tape with an officer standing guard outside. The Daily Mail said police were searching the nearby tunnels for bodies. Reporters had seen members of the volunteer group that maintains the Drop Redoubt at the Western Heights coming out of a tunnel with police officers and members of the fire brigade. So, these reporters approached them and asked if this was anything to do with the murder investigation. It was explained to them that it was not, and that they were there to make preparations ahead of an inter-services rescue training exercise. The tunnels are sealed, but explorers and kids get in sometimes, so there needs to be a plan in case anyone gets injured or stuck. So, having had it clearly explained to them that the tunnels had no connection at all to the murder investigation, The Daily Mail published a story saying the tunnels were being searched as part of the murder investigation.)
From my house at Queen’s Gardens in the middle of Dover to these caves is a fourteen-minute walk (I timed it). You cross York Street, the dual carriageway (under which a substantial Roman fort lies buried) and go up a flight of concrete steps to the foot of North Military Road. Military is a road in three parts, the North going up, Centre Road is level, then South Military Road goes down again and joins the A20. You pass the St John Ambulance HQ on the left, and then it’s a fairly gentle slope with much steeper slopes either side, one up, one down – rising to the left you have the grass and trees and shrubs of the Western Heights, and below you on the right is one of those intriguing, unusable, dark segments of land that get left behind by house and road building. It’s a miniature forest; fallen trees and thick ivy. The only use anyone has found for it, predictably, is as somewhere to chuck things. An awful lot of detritus from some very heavy drinking. Empty, brand non-specific, bottles of vodka where the label just says ‘VODKA’. There’s only one house. A bungalow, and in its carpark to the side a small collection of luxury cars with wacky numberplates…
…I had to break off there as I was writing this, because I’d thought I would remember exactly what was on those numberplates, and I didn’t. I knew it was some rendering of the song title ‘Too Shy’, the novelty hit for KajaGooGoo in 1983, involving the number 2, but I couldn’t remember what it was exactly, so I went out to look, and found North Military Road cordoned off. Several police vans there, and I could see a line of uniformed men spanning the road, moving slowly and looking down – obviously a search. I knew there were searches associated with the Sarah Everard murder investigation at several sites in Kent. I went back later and noted that the number plate, for what it’s worth, is TOO2 SHY. What do you do when something like this happens? When triviality and tragedy collide like that it’s impossible for the rational mind to accommodate…
…You reach a bend in the road with a muddy car park to the right and a clear view across the valley, and if you cross that car park you’re in to the grounds surrounding the Western Heights fort next to the Drop Redoubt, which is the Detached Bastion. The road bears left, carving actually in to the Western Heights, so the slopes rise above you on both sides now. Another couple of minutes’ walking takes you to a right turn, and just around that corner is a huge, ornate, Renaissance style brickwork entrance for the underground fort of the Detached Bastion. (The fort was supposed to be hidden, that was the whole point of it, but at some stage the Victorian builders seem to have parted company with that idea and started to make things as if the point of them was, actually, to be looked at. Possibly it had been understood by then that these forts were unlikely ever to be needed to repel French invaders.) You pass, on your left, the abandoned military buildings that had become a garage (that search), and you’re at St Martin’s Battery, which I have already described above. This is the part of the road called Centre Road, and here the pavement just stops. You’ve moved through a section of the heights so now it drops away to your left again (steep woods, fly-tipping of white goods, soggy suitcases split open with cheap clothes scattered, cans and bottles), and on your right is where the caves are. (These caves don’t have a name by the way, perhaps because they are so modest in scale compared to the Champagne Caves, Winchelsea Caves, Hammonds Caves, and others; all immense.) Just before you turn, you’ll pass an earth embankment a few feet from the road, and, amongst substantial tree roots, what look like enormous rabbit holes. They always remind me of the holes that Rupert Bear would disappear in to and find an underground kingdom of sprites or living toys. If you look down these holes there’s brickwork, and then darkness, very narrow. You’d need to be a serious pot-holer to want to get down there. I gather that this is another entrance to the fort, and it’s been buried, or nearly buried, by the local authority. Moving on there’s a huge wall, 30 odd foot high, at right angles to the road, which closes off one side of a wooded area. Follow that (there’s a rough path) and, about 25 yards in the wall goes left, running parallel with the road. This wall turns in to a cliff face, and here are the unnamed caves.
Inland cliff faces are not so white as those facing out to sea – the surface is mossy, and there are ferns and ivy. There are four caves I know of, about 8 yards high and 30 wide at the openings, but these have been filled in with large rectangular chalk blocks, giving them a medieval look, although they must be much more recent. Nobody knows for sure, but probably mid-Victorian. The entrances are irregular gaps, knocked through without much thought.
These caves are man-made, but they might look like natural formations if it weren’t for the very visible pickaxe marks shaping the walls. Perhaps some of those marks have been made with pre-Bronze Age antler picks. The floor is as uneven as the moon. It actually looks quite like pictures of the moon’s surface – greyish white, and bleak. They are about 30 yards deep, and taper off as, apparently, the energy and ingenuity of the diggers dwindled. They’ve been used for storage, but were probably dug to mine the chalk, some of which may have been processed in the lime kilns nearby, in Lime Kiln Street.
The signs of occupation or use are of two sorts and vintages. There’s the rubbish left by homeless people and kids – sleeping bags, cans, bottles etc. Then there’s the graffiti. In the 19th century, when Dover was at its peak as a garrison town, soldiers carved their initials in to the chalk, often with a date – the earliest I’ve seen is 1826. The script is fancy, and the carving is deep. They will have had time on their hands. Possibly the tool they used would have been a bayonet. One or two have added the emblem of the ‘broad arrow’ to their names, the cartoon arrowhead used to mark an object as government or War Department property. It’s basically the same grim joke that caused US troops much later to call themselves ‘G.I.s’ (government issue).
I sometimes take people to see these caves, and they’re always amazed something so strange and melancholy and spooky should be that close to a person’s house. And that there’s never anyone else there. Actually, there were some people there once. I was slightly annoyed at first. (I have irrational proprietorial feelings about these places without signs, or names, that I’ve discovered on a soggy day, alone, taking a sudden impulsive turn off the path and into the undergrowth.) But then I was pleased that they too have made this discovery. It was a bunch of lads, aged about 16 or 17 I suppose. As me and my London friends arrived at the cliff face, we saw them dragging themselves, laughing, out of the least accessible, actually scarily narrow, of the four entrance holes. They were teenagers, but you could tell these caves made them feel like 8-year olds out playing. ‘I’ve lived in Dover my whole life!’ said one to me, and to his friends: ‘Never knew about this place!’ We stood around facing the walls and shining our phone torches at the graffiti, searching for names and shouting them out, as if we all knew each other.
Dover library has a copy of Derek Leach’s ‘Dover’s Caves and Tunnels’ in its very substantial local history section (there’s an awful lot of history to cover round here): I’d taken it out a couple of times and I was about to actually buy one (they sell it at the White Cliffs visitor’s centre and the Dover Museum gift shop) when one came in to my possession more or less by accident. It was a result of the Covid pandemic. The ground floor of my building in central Dover used to be a micropub called The Lanes. They had to close when they found their insurance didn’t cover them for some things that actually happen, like this pandemic, and I was given their collection of books about Dover. I don’t think many walkers went to The Lanes, but the idea was that walkers would end their day drinking locally brewed ales and bitters while looking at books about some of the places they’d been visiting. (Typically, according to the publican, Keith, now an ex-publican, there is supposed to be a tunnel leading from the cellar to another cellar across the road ‘for the smugglers’. I’ve had a look and there’s no sign of it, but it might be there.) So, I got a copy for nothing.
It’s a slim volume, well written, with black and white illustrations giving straightforward information about the dozens of caves and tunnels and other related structures in Dover, such as wells, and the Grand Shaft, which is neither a cave nor a tunnel – the Grand Shaft is hard to classify really. It is sui generis, and spectacular. One of the many amazing things round here that are not famous, but should be. Its purpose was to allow about 1500 troops from the barracks up on the cliffs to deploy to the seashore in a few minutes, instead of having to follow a mile and a half of zig-zag pathways. It’s a vertical shaft, 140 feet deep and 26 across. Standing at the bottom and looking up you see the inner wall is regularly punctuated with arched windows, and through these the three rows of stairs. It’s a triple helix of spiral staircases. (Supposedly there’s one for officers, one for NCOs, and one for the men, but in an emergency, if there had ever been one, everyone would have just run down pell mell.)
The book is in two main sections, military and civilian. The Grand Shaft is military of course, and a lot of the book is dedicated to the caves and tunnels underneath Dover Castle, which, unlike the Grand Shaft, is actually being effectively monetised as a tourist destination. Which is probably why I’ve never been in it. I would like very much to explore all the caves and so on round here, but I don’t want to do it with a lot of other people, having paid about 20 quid, so I haven’t been to the Dover Castle tunnels yet, interesting and beautiful as they undoubtedly are.
The problem for anyone curious about the caves and tunnels here, as I have said, is the limited information and limited access. The book is a good introductory survey of the subject, but Mr Leach explains in the introduction why the information is bound to be incomplete. The closest there has ever been to a concerted attempt to record all the tunnels and caves of Dover was undertaken in the late 60s and early 70s by John Walton and Allen Cook, two firefighters, and they did it in their own time. They realised there was a need for such a thing when they were called to a fire in a tunnel that took two days to put out, all of it working pretty much blind, in perilous conditions, because they had no maps or diagrams or records of any kind. So, they made some themselves, as complete as they could manage with their limited time and resources, and no doubt a considerable feat. But, having gathered this data, their own surveys and whatever existing records they could find, they decided to keep it all secret, because they were worried about people getting in and finding themselves in trouble. The whole point, after all, was to assist emergency services, not create further problems for them. Derek Leach’s book has pictures and descriptions, but no exact directions, so there’s that whole other Dover of abandoned chalk mines turned air-raid shelters, primitive sewers, improvised warehouses, wine cellars, barracks and ammo stores, Channel Tunnel false starts, wells, troglodyte homes, and, yes, some smuggler’s passageways, all hidden, and kept hidden, for all sorts of reasons.
Of course, if you keep your eyes peeled you can sometimes work it out for yourself. Like those inaccessible boarded-up entrances near the petrol station, which, as I say, I believe are something to do either with the immense and beautiful Champagne Caves, or the labyrinthine Hammonds Caves. And those I’d very much like to see. I’ve seen pictures on Youtube. It’s in there with hours of footage made by a chap called Ian Stead, who does the ‘IKS Exploration’ channel; him and various friends and collaborators visit all sorts of amazing hidden and derelict sites all over the country, many of them military, or if not military somehow associated with government. Large organisations have an aptitude for completely forgetting large things – entire buildings and so on. I found Ian’s channel when I’d Googled, I think, ’Dover tunnels’ or something like that. This must be the most complete visual record of Dover’s underground, but I haven’t looked at most of it, other than the first few minutes of some of the dozens of videos, because, I realised, I don’t want to see it like that, just on a screen. Watching IKS Exploration’s videos actually makes me feel quite frustrated. Ian also has a website with a contact email, so I got in touch because I wanted to find out how to get in to one of these places. I want to get to all of them, but I started just asking about one – a row of brickwork tunnels like railway arches somewhere near Fort Burgoyne, quite overgrown and becoming derelict. He was very polite, but he didn’t want to give exact information about things like that, for the same reason the fire fighters don’t. It’s in case someone gets in and then gets in to trouble, and doesn’t make it out again. I’ve watched the beginnings of quite a few of his videos, just looking for clues, and realised he’s very careful not to give any verbal or visual clues about actual locations and points of access. Given the size of some of the things he’s filmed it’s amazing to me that stuff like that isn’t obvious just from walking around Dover, but it isn’t. Also, a lot of his filming seems to have been done before many of the entrances were bricked up or backfilled by the council or, possibly, by English Heritage. I moved to Dover in 2018, and a lot of these safety measures seem to have been implemented not long before I got here.
Ian Stead explores a lot of places in the UK, but so many are in Dover I decided he must live here. One day I was in Morrisons, and I saw Ian. I very nearly approached him to say I’m a fan of the Youtube channel, and for a second it even crossed my mind there that a friendship might blossom, and he’d tell me some of Dover’s secrets. I didn’t say anything though. It would have been incredibly awkward. I’ll have to think of another way.
01.08.21 Dover’s Dead
There’s a video on Youtube called ‘Dover, UK. Is it a total shithole? Residents speak, uncensored!’, and it’s made by a chap called Graham Phillips who seems to be a sort of free-lance travel journalist. It starts with views of Brighton, everybody’s idea of a successful and enjoyable southern coastal town, and it’s already clear that Dover is not likely to come out of this very well. Especially with a title that includes the sort of question that begs to be answered in the affirmative. This video was posted in 2018, but will have been made in 2017 as a response to a number of articles that year giving the top ten worst places to live in the UK, based on some poll. Dover ranked at the bottom, or top, depending how you look at it (by 2018 we’d apparently stopped being the absolute worst and become only nearly the worst).
After those introductory Brighton shots of teeming, sun kissed beaches, and the busy pier, the rest of it is him walking around Biggin Street and Cannon Street (together they comprise the high street), and asking people what they think of Dover. He will have got here by train from London and walked the short distance from Dover Priory Station in to town, beginning to film in Worthington Street, more or less across the road from me, and his first interview is with the two ladies who used to stand outside the greengrocer’s and have a cigarette. He asked them what they think of Dover, and they both seemed uncertain. One said she didn’t really know because she never goes out at night, and the other said she didn’t either. That greengrocer closed last year, and it’s a barber shop now. When shops close down in Dover, if they do re-open, and mostly they don’t, it’s as a barber or hairdresser. There are six places I can get a haircut less than a minute’s walk from where I live. And it was a shame about that greengrocer. I never bought my vegetables there because they often seemed to be a bit past their best, but they used to sell this amazing Kentish apple juice there. Best apple juice I’ve ever tasted. There’s nowhere in Dover you can get it now.
He carries on past The Dovorian and The Beano, both excellent cafés, and on to the high street, where he approaches a tiny lady of retirement age, perhaps a bit more, sitting on one of the benches outside the old Marks & Spencer premises with her shopping trolley. She tells him, sadly, that the Marks & Spencer has gone now, and suggests he’d better move along and speak to someone else, so he moves to the other bench that used to be there (they’ve been replaced by a controversial ‘street garden’, a combination of seating and planters that apparently cost a lot more than you’d have thought possible). There he meets two young mums, with their infants, taking a break to enjoy a ciggy and a chat, and the answer he gets to his question about Dover is the headliner he was probably looking for – ‘Shit!’ says one, laughing. He thanks them for their forthright response and carries on (as he’s leaving one shouts out ‘What’s this for?’, and he tells her that, rather disappointingly, it’s just going on Youtube).
The next two interviews he does offer a striking contrast in attitudes from two men of the same generation – I’m guessing about 70. Having proceeded towards the town square, filming and noting the many closed shops interspersed with the usual chain outlets, Costa, Subway, Boots, Smiths and so on, he stops by a chap out with his granddaughter, walking the dog, and his response to the question about what it’s like here is a confident ‘Beautiful!’. And, following some thoughts from Graham expressing frank scepticism, he says that people have a dim view of Dover only because they’ve never stopped here – either they’re on the way to France, or, if they’ve come the other way, visitors from the cruise ships for example, they go straight to Canterbury (which, by the way, I visit a lot, mainly for the artist’s materials shop, and which I think looks nothing special these days – not crummy, but characterless, a bit like Kingston-on-Thames where I’m from). The granddaughter then mentions the White Cliffs and the Castle. Graham says they sound like they’re from the Dover Tourism office, but that he’ll include their remarks unedited, which he obviously has, or I wouldn’t have heard them.
Next, he comes to two chaps outside the Poundstretcher, and gets quite another view. One is very much more vocal than the other, and his immediate answer to Graham’s question is a growled ‘Rubbish!’. When pressed further about what it is that makes Dover rubbish, he offers, as leading culprits, Dover District Council and Dover Harbour Board. He allows that the new St James Retail and Leisure Park is OK, as it goes, and his friend gives helpful directions – it’s just at the end of the High Street (a problem we’ll come back to). Then, as Graham thanks them and turns to go the more vocal, and more angry, of the two leans in and says ‘I’ll say one thing more – immigration.’ Apparently immigrants get 30,000 pounds a week, each. Dover has some problems, he thinks, but this is the worst. Graham moves on again.
There is an inconclusive exchange with a man of, I think, Asian descent, who agrees that Dover has its problems but is not rash enough to venture an opinion about why because he doesn’t feel that he is well informed enough. The last interview (possibly Graham had to get back to London quick, so he has had to conduct the whole thing in under 20 minutes) was with a couple of handsome young lads, one of whom says, right away, that Dover is ‘dead’. We look up and down Cannon Street, and see that not many people are passing not many open shops.
On his way to this end of Cannon Street Graham has passed St Mary’s Church. You get a glimpse of it, but he’s more interested in the Wetherspoons directly opposite on the narrow pedestrianised street, with people sitting outside having a daytime drink (and in the UK drinking outdoors in the daytime is never quite going to seem as civilised as it does on the continent). St Mary’s is a beautiful church, not big, with a modest churchyard dominated by a spectacular broad-canopied blossoming tree, possibly cherry. Its bell tower at the front, through which you enter, is Norman, and, like so many of the buildings round here, made mostly of flint. The rest of the church is mainly mid-Victorian, incorporating some Norman components, and is the result of a ‘controversial’ rebuild. Apparently there was a feeling that the rebuild wasn’t necessary, and that the original structure was too great a loss, which may be so, but the church as it is seems aesthetically complete to me. The proportions are very pleasing. Part of the rebuilding must have involved a reduction of the size of the graveyard, because the low perimeter wall is lined on the inside with a great many gravestones, all side by side because they’ve been moved from other positions, and many of them so eroded that the inscriptions have either become illegible or disappeared altogether. Stronger, more sculptural features remain though, including the candidly morbid carved skulls at the tops of some stones. I don’t know when they stopped doing this, but I’d have thought it went out of fashion well before the Victorians. The other striking memento mori are a few of those low tombs actually shaped like coffins. Again, I don’t know when they stopped doing those, but I’m guessing they are 18th century. There are some comparatively recent burials there, just modest plaques set in to the grass, I suppose because of limited space, but the most touching stones are, for me, some of the upright Victorian gravestones on which a family’s tale of serial bereavement is set out. Headstones will have been costly, and infant mortality was high, so very often the occasion of the death of a senior family member, usually male but not always, is taken as an opportunity to list a number of other deaths, babies dying very soon after birth, and, perhaps yet more heart-breaking, the deaths of children. (There’s a huge Victorian graveyard in the centre of Sheffield, where I used to live, and I would take my small daughter there for walks. Often, as I passed a gravestone recording some tragedy of this sort, I would thank God that I was behind and above her as I pushed her along in her buggy, so she had no idea I was crying. I would also, of course, thank God that infant mortality is very rare now. I don’t believe in God though – I should really thank medical science and the NHS.) So, for example, at St Mary’s there is this inscription – In Memory of James May, who died 6th September 1834, aged 28 years. Leaving issue one son James William. Also Elizabeth Sarah, daughter of the above, who died 27th March 1834, aged 9 months. Also of the above James William, who died 18th November 1834, aged 2 years and 6 months. This man died young, six months after losing his baby daughter, but was at least spared the loss of his infant son who died two months after him. Another burial of note is that of Lieutenant James Hart of the 33rd regiment who was killed at the Battle of Waterloo, aged 23.
The churchyard of St Mary’s, besides being an interesting churchyard, is also a short cut between Cannon Street and the St James Retail and Leisure Park, which is basically a big car park with shops around it. When people say Dover is shit, or rubbish, or dead, they usually just mean it’s not a shopping destination. Which is fair comment, but there are other things in life besides shopping. And it must have been thought by a considerable coterie of powerful people in Dover, for quite a few years (apparently it had been planned since the 80s), that this development could solve that problem, but it doesn’t. It makes things worse, and anybody who’d thought about it properly for more than five minutes would have realised it would. It would have made things worse even back in the 80s, but now everybody knows that high streets all over the UK are in trouble because of online shopping and shopping malls. The idea of building a place to relocate all the shops you want right next to where all the shops you want currently already are is just mad. The Marks & Spencer branch whose absence the lady Graham Phillips first spoke to was quietly mourning is at St James now, but the old one did clothes and food. This one just does food. There’s a Greggs there, just in case you’ve had a Greggs pastry at the Greggs they still have in Biggin Street and, having walked the 300 yards to St James, got hungry for some Greggs baked goods again. There’s a Poundland, in case the Poundland 400 yards away across Pencester Gardens doesn’t fully meet your requirements for things that cost one pound. And there’s a Costa and a Card Factory, and so on. All the things that could be anywhere and that are especially loved nowhere. And it’s plug ugly. The architects haven’t even tried to look like they’re trying. The ugliness is magnified by the fact that, actually, although Dover Castle is visible from all over town, one of the most splendid views, especially under dramatic light, when the sun comes out following a heavy summer rainfall, is from the middle of St James – the middle of a car park. What this means is that a substantial portion of the view from splendid Dover Castle, looking down in to Dover, is of this car park. And if you turn your back on the castle, cross the dual carriageway and another substantial car park (the parking in Dover is lavish) you can find another cemetery that I think is more beautiful, and even more profound, than St Mary’s.
The first impression of Cowgate Cemetery is of picturesque dereliction. You step through a set of rusty, ivy covered, wrought iron gates into abundant greenery and crumbling stonework, the graves all wonky, leaning too far forward or backward. There are very many trees; a huge bay, yew trees, and other species I can’t identify, and the grass – well distributed with marjoram and black knapweed and bird’s foot trefoil and pyramidal orchids – in high summer anyway, is at chest height. There’s no building here, just the graves (apparently the chapel was knocked down a long time ago), and the largest structures are the family vaults lodged in to the side of the hill at the top. It’s on a slope because it’s at the foot of Western Heights, and it looks very beautiful but quite neglected, as if the whole place had been forgotten by whoever is supposed to look after graveyards, and has become overgrown. In fact, it’s being deliberately managed as a chalk downland meadow, a very rare type of environment. The grass is mown twice a year (you imagine this being done with a scythe, but it’s strimmers), so as to create optimal conditions for wild life. On a hot day the butterflies and grasshoppers are everywhere. Part of my first impression actually had to do with a vague memory of the graveyard at the beginning of David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’ in which the boy Pip is terrorised by an escaped convict while visiting the graves of his parents. That image is one of those that stay with you, because that film seemed to be on television about every other Sunday afternoon when I was a kid, and Pip’s terror had become confused with my own feelings about school the next day. Actually, there is not much of a resemblance. The graves in the film are all wonky, but it’s bleak and spooky. Cowgate is very welcoming.
At the top left corner there was, for a short time last year, a small encampment of homeless people, and every time I saw them I would feel incredibly guilty about my sense that they shouldn’t be there. They’ve gone now. I hope they found somewhere else as good.
As with St Mary’s, a lot of the gravestones have become illegible, but there are still some fascinating examples with clear histories to them. One slightly strange thing is the obelisk in memory of Sergeant John Monger. A major feature of life in Dover through the middle of the 19th century was the presence of the volunteer regiments, equivalent to today’s territorial army. The idea was that they would defend us against French invasions, but everybody knew the chances of that happening at that time were practically nil, so being a ‘volunteer’ seems to have been, basically, a hobby. But they drilled and trained and paraded. Especially the parades. Sergeant Monger was killed when the artillery piece he was operating blew up. I’ve seen pictures of his funeral, and it was a huge display of (part time) military pageantry. It seems almost everybody in Dover turned out.
If you go down to the opposite end of the high street from St James Retail Park you will find, somehow inevitably, another retail park – a big car park with shops around it, called Castleton Retail. But I don’t mind this one nearly as much, because one of the shops is Morrison’s, which, for me, is the best shop in Dover. I often pop in on the way back from visits to my favourite cemetery to get a few bits (I’m just back from there now). Or, I should say, favourite cemeteries, because it’s two very sizable cemeteries, St James and Charlton, divided by a road, an unusual arrangement I’d have thought. There must be a reason one of the cemeteries has the same name as the retail park across town, but I don’t know what it is. It is quite beautiful, and impressive, too – the scale of it, nestled in the folds of a natural hollow or dale, with the top end accessible from the wild pasture above. I’ve seen cemeteries this size before around London, but they’re always quite flat. Here, the headstones and monuments, the many huge trees, various conifers, a spectacular copper beech, are distributed across a rumpled green hillside. Seeing it in late afternoon on a summer’s day you could suspect that the whole thing had been put there just to create the most visually rich array of shadows possible. Long, long shadows, black against vivid green, in marvellous shapes.
It seems absurd, and slightly disrespectful, to think of graves as having fashions, but they do, and after a while you can tell at a glance roughly when a stone was laid without having to read the inscription. For example, the use of loose chips of coloured glass to decorate the tops of graves has almost disappeared following a good run in the middle decades of this century. Excessive ornament, angels and foliage and draped urns etc. will instantly identify anything as Victorian. The latest fashion is for black granite and gold lettering. Skulls are, I believe, typical of the 17th and early 18th centuries, but there are none here because I don’t think St James and Charlton cemeteries are quite that old. A major shift towards greater simplicity occurs in the period following WW1, partly because of changes of taste with the emergence of Art Deco, but also because of the sheer numbers required. There are lots of war graves here, both world wars, tidy rows of modest whitish rectangles distinguished and personalised by the details of the incumbent’s name and rank, or rank and name, their branch of the services, the date they were killed. These dates come in batches associated with particular phases of the conflicts, and in groups associated with events that have particularly involved Dover. There is a cemetery within the cemetery, surrounded by a tidy yew hedge, in which almost every stone dates from 1940, the disastrous Battle of France and subsequent evacuation from Dunkirk. Elsewhere there is an earlier dedicated area with graves and memorials devoted to the casualties of the raid on Zeebrugge in 1918 (apparently there is controversy in military history about whether this was a disaster or not).
Wandering amongst the war dead you’ll stop and read an inscription every now and then, and, for various reasons, some names will stand out. Last time I noted B. Blazejczak, Chueng Chuk Sum, S. Ali and G. E. Bill; the first three because they’ll be among those immigrants that are such a burden on this country, and the last because, obviously, it’s my name, and there aren’t many Bills around. My Dad was in the Royal Navy too in WW2, but I don’t think we’re related to G. E. Bill – he was crew on a motor torpedo boat and died in 1944, aged 19.
There is also, within the grounds of St James, a walled Jewish Cemetery, which I would like to see but there is no access from the main cemetery, and the wrought iron gate from Charlton Road is locked and chained. There’s a sign on the gate post giving a number for anyone to call with enquiries, and I may do that. It’s intriguing because it’s quite a large area with not many graves, all of them, as far as I can tell at a distance, from the mid-Victorian period. What happened?
I do actually like shopping, but just food shopping, because I love cooking and eating, and I was quite excited when I discovered there’s a new CO-OP in the re-development of the old Buckland paper mill. The mill has been converted to ‘high end loft apartments’ (I think the first of their kind in Dover), and I thought that, with the sort of cosmopolitan people they must be expecting to live there, the stuff they stock at this new shop may include one or two excitingly exotic items. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting to find when I went to have a look around, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary for what is, basically, a large convenience store. And I can’t now remember if I found the CO-OP because I was looking for St Andrew’s Church or the other way round. Anyway, the CO-OP was a slight let down but the church and its cemetery are not. St Andrew’s is one of those buildings that you want to tell Americans about just so they’ll say ‘Oh my – England is so old!’. It’s about one thousand years old in fact. It’s been added to at various times, mainly by the Victorians, but they stopped interments a long time ago. The most distinctive, indeed unique, feature of the cemetery is the Buckland Yew, which they think was planted when the present church was built, so it’s one thousand years old and still alive. When they were adding to the church in 1880 and the tree was in the way they actually moved it. It cost a lot of money and took a lot of work, under the direction of the country’s leading expert on tree moving (I hadn’t realised there was such a thing as a tree mover, let alone a leading tree mover). A photograph shows a lot of people who’d apparently paid to view this tremendous feat of engineering in progress, standing amid the huge blocks and pulleys, all staring seriously at the camera. It’s one of those very heartening thoughts, that they would go to all that trouble for a tree. Would anyone do that now? The church is beautiful, the cemetery is beautiful, and that tree, with its other-worldly forms, very much twisted and split and hollowed, is, in the proper sense, fantastic.
(I’ve just found out the place across the road from me that used to be an old-fashioned greengrocer, and which was converted at some considerable cost in to a hipster barber shop, with mock 50s chromium chairs, and men with waxed moustaches and skinny jeans worn with braces working there, has gone out of business. Less than a year that took. It’s amazing, in such an historic town, how useless people can be at thinking outside the narrowest possible time frame so as to be able to actually plan things properly. If those guys had thought ‘How much longer will the craze for hipster barbers last?’ they could have answered themselves ‘Not long – So let’s do something else.’)
There’s an idea about painters that we’re especially preoccupied with qualities of light. This comes up if anybody mentions, say, the south of France or St Ives in Cornwall in relation to painters and painting. The thought is that there are communities of artists in those places, and that they all go there for the special light. We’re also supposed to be especially concerned about which direction the windows of our studios face. It’s not quite that none of that is true, but a significant number of the painters whose work you might encounter in contemporary art galleries are city dwellers, and they work in old factories and warehouses, under strip lights. Painters just are not that discerning about light. On or off is the only thing we really notice mostly. If we’re outdoors we’ll appreciate a nice sunny day, the same as anyone else, but a painter who sells their work is realistically only expecting those works to be seen under artificial light. If anything, you’d be slightly sabotaging yourself if you only made paintings under carefully selected natural lighting conditions, and also expected those works to be viewed that way. Collectors put your work in their houses, and museums put it, obviously, in the museum. It’s all indoors.
I have been to St Ives, and still didn’t get it. It was sunny, but nothing about that seemed distinctive. My near indifference to qualities of light only changed when I came to live in Dover. The experience was one of that rare and satisfying kind in which a metaphorical description and a literal description are the same thing – I saw the light. My eyes were opened. And so on.
I’ve been doing a lot of walking, and I’ve had a number of these experiences by now, so I can’t remember which was the first one, or when it was exactly. Pretty soon after I got here, April 2018. So, let’s say the first one was on the cliffs at Langdon. That’s the section of the white cliffs that is actually designated ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ (there are chalk cliffs going on for miles either side of it), so, it’s a tourist destination, but on a weekday, even in summer, you’re mostly on your own. (When I lived in Sheffield we’d visit the Peak District a lot, and it always seemed to be teeming with walkers and cyclists in these garish luminous ‘outdoors’ outfits, no doubt purchased at one of the many sporting and camping goods emporia in Hathersage. You got the sense there that going outdoors was very much a business.)
Atholl Terrace is a pleasing row of narrow, white painted, town houses at the eastern border of Dover, surprisingly not spoiled at all by its arm’s-length proximity to the busy Eastern Docks. When I first took the concrete path that leads from the end of Atholl Terrace up to the White Cliffs there were no signs to tell me I was going the right way, so I was guessing. It’s a long path, and at that time still a nameless one. Those omissions have since been put right in a way that seems somehow typical for Dover. Vera Lynn died in 2020, and it must have occurred to someone that this presented the opportunity to carry out two otherwise unrelated tasks – pay tribute to Dame Vera, and place a sign where one would be useful. They christened the path ‘Dame Vera Lynn Way’, and underneath that they’ve put ‘to the White Cliffs of Dover’ (the sign at the other end has the name plus a bit of the lyric from her famous WW2 song ‘There’ll be Bluebirds Over, The White Cliffs of Dover’). At the top you go past a booth where they take the car park money, and then the visitor’s centre. Through a gate that’s there to keep the Exmoor ponies in, and another ten minutes walking gets you to a picturesque fairy tale dell or vale called Langdon Hole. This lies between the actual cliff edge and the sea on one side (obviously), and a flinty field on the other. I think it was whilst crossing this field that I had, for the first time, the sort of response to light a painter ought to have. What was it about the conditions here that caused this? Light on its own is just undifferentiated glare, so its varieties are only really disclosed by the particular character of its effects on what is lit – the surfaces and objects.
First, though, there was scale. This wide and high field by the sea offers an encounter with the sky. Boy (you will think), the sky! It’s big, isn’t it. Why is it that I hadn’t really noticed this before? The great big sky above. There was a degree of surprise for me here, because I could certainly have imagined seeing a big sky somewhere, but I wouldn’t have expected it to be in England. You’d expect it to be something you get maybe in the desert. Not Kent.
The quality the light had that day was of a striking clarity. Again, a slightly surprising effect because I’d thought almost all the light I’d seen before was pretty clear anyway. Being clear just means there’s nothing in it making it cloudy, but here the clarity seemed to be an additional property that caused everything to look as if it was made of a crystalline material, even the grass. And this did something peculiar to the perception of distance. France is 20 odd miles away, and it looked about that, at the same time as seeming like you could have reached out and flicked it with a finger. Swimming the channel seemed completely doable (in reality of course I’d probably drown). The sense of space being both infinite and intimate was lent a synaesthetic dimension by the pervasive, quite loud, birdsong. And I couldn’t see the birds. I found out later that that’s a characteristic of the song of skylarks. They fly so high you often can’t see them, but the sound carries. The clear, clear, light yielded a great wealth of detail. Ships and other craft, sometimes a dozen or so at a time in the strait, and the crisp outlines showing you what sort – a ferry, or the Border Force, or a multi-storey cruiser, or someone’s posh yacht, or a cargo ship with a small city of containers, like a slow-moving model of Manhattan; the port, with its multiple intricate structures poking out in to the sea; horizontal patches of bright water where the sun strikes at full force through breaks in the cloud.
Anyway, what is light? This is something that interests me very much. Studying visual perception is a sort of hobby of mine. In art schools, where there is an obsession currently with wanting to call anything anyone does ‘research’, I’m often asked if this is research, or if it’s part of my research (‘research’ can now mean the work an artist does). Or could I just say ‘research’, please? It’s not research. Research is one of two things – Either it’s acquiring totally new knowledge in, say, a scientific study, and I’m not doing that because I’m reading other people’s results, not finding my own. I’m not a scientist. Or it’s gathering existing information for some project or other. If, for example, I was writing a novel about the Tudors my research would be reading a lot about Henry VIII and so on, by way of preparation. And it isn’t like that either because learning about visual perception is not a preparation for making visual art. I was doing that already. Beginning to understand something of how vision works doesn’t help me make visual art any more than it helps me to see. I can see anyway, can’t I – But how? The study of visual perception is in its infancy. Not surprising, that, because one thing we do know is that the whole of the occipital cortex, the back part of the brain, is devoted to vision, and around 40 other areas are involved in some way. Seeing is a breathtakingly difficult and complex task, involving a terrific neural workload and a great deal of energy drawn from the rich blood supply, and yet it’s achieved with no sense of effort. Every time you look at something your brain is working very hard indeed, and yet you don’t know that it is. The idea that we could apply current scientific knowledge of how vision works directly to the complex task of making a work of visual art is ridiculous. The understanding of visual perception is nowhere near ready for that. The reason I study visual perception is because it’s so interesting.
Light is the best medium for describing our surroundings in detail. That is, the exact form and deployment of objects we don’t happen to be actually touching, near and far. A lot of useful information can be derived from the vibrations of air waves, so hearing is useful, and a lot can be derived from airborne chemicals, so smell is useful too. But both of those media are diffuse, and quite slow moving. Light is incredibly fine grained, it moves at terrific speed and in straight lines (it does curve at the cosmic level but that doesn’t concern us at our scale – so, in effect, perfect straight lines). Being able to detect light, bouncing around in the environment, rebounding from various surfaces in lawful ways at predictable angles, gives extremely detailed, almost instant, information about your physical context. The fact that light, unlike sound and smell, doesn’t go round corners is actually an advantage, because the edges of an object, its corners, are what gives us an accurate 3D description of that object. That’s how objects are, as it were, drawn in space.
What is the stuff itself? Light. There are four known forces in the universe – gravity, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, and electromagnetism. Light is a sort of electromagnetism. Electromagnetism propagates at a great range of different wavelengths, from something smaller than the nucleus of an atom up to a single wave as wide as the planet, and beyond. Those different wavelengths give it very different properties. So, for example, gamma rays and x-rays are short, and radio waves are long. Between those extremes on the electromagnetic spectrum is light (sometimes, rather confusingly I think, called ‘visible light’), at between about 400 and 700 nanometers. A property of electromagnetic radiation within this range of wavelengths is that it causes some particular chemicals to alter instantly. So, if you have a quantity of the chemicals in question you have a light detector. And that’s what photoreceptor cells, the rods and cones in the eyes are – they are cells containing these chemicals. Note that there is more than one of sort of light responsive chemical, the ‘opsins’, and that different objects reflect or emit different wavelengths of light in the range between 400 and 700 nanometers. Having cells containing different opsins, the three types of cone cell, gives us the ability to detect those differences of wavelength, and this means you can know something additional about the objects and surfaces around you other than sizes and shapes. You have colour.
In the early days of vision research the prospect of fully explaining vision did not seem so remote, and within a cultural atmosphere of widespread enthusiasm for science among educated people there was a lot of interest from painters in vision science, especially about colour. Throughout the 19th century there were various ideas about the possibility of optimising the colour in a painting by applying scientific principles. There were a great many colour theories, producing exquisite ‘colour wheel’ diagrams, and the best known of these was devised by the French chemist Michel Chevreul. In the 1820s he was hired by a famous dye works that produced thread for tapestries to investigate the apparent fading of some of their dyes. It turned out those dyes weren’t fading, it’s just the colours looked more or less vivid depending on what colour they were next to. That seems like common sense now, and I’m sure most painters could have told them that, but he was the first person to note and actually investigate that phenomenon.
The most famous artist who was supposed to be using Chevreul’s principles to give a more scientific colour effect in painting was Seurat. Some art historians and critics will still claim he was producing his range of colours by so-called ‘optical mixing’, that is, instead of mixing paints on the palette then applying them you apply dots of primary colour in different densities and then the mixing is achieved optically. It’s the same principle as colour printing and colour on computers. Only he wasn’t really. If you look closely at a Seurat it’s obvious he was mixing his colours before applying them, the same as any other painter. None of this means that scientific principles about colour could never be used in a controlled way by artists and designers and so on, but the thing is we hardly understand it now. Vision is not well understood yet, and so colour isn’t well understood. It’s worth emphasising this – It’s amazingly complicated, and we have a long way to go. These are the olden days, basically. And, anyhow, we don’t need to understand the science of colour to use colour. You don’t need to instrumentalise knowledge. The interest of the science is to understand something we, some better than others, can do already. An additional benefit is wonder. The fact that we can see colour is wonderful, and appreciating the difficulty of the task cultivates wonder.
I didn’t start to think about Turner in relation to all this until I found the DVD of the Mike Leigh biopic ‘Mr Turner’ in the library by the museum in the square. How I managed to not think about Turner for so many months I don’t know. I mean, I’m a painter, one who admires Turner, doing just what Turner used to do exactly where he used to do it – walking along the cliffs, looking at reflections and rainbows and sunsets and glare and shimmer. Never crossed my mind until I saw that DVD. It’s a pretty good film. Lots of beautiful photography, terrific acting, and all the dialogue and costumes and everything seem authentic. Also, of course, as shown in the film, Turner’s interest in light was informed by, or, at any rate, inflected by, a belief that this pursuit was a kind of, or was related to, scientific research. He made diagrams and so on for his lectures. And he was very influenced in his thinking by Goethe’s famous, and in important ways quite wrong, colour theory. Goethe did consider his colour theory as a scientific enterprise, but he was also hostile to science (a lot of the romantics were), and he did not believe what Newton had discovered, that white light mixes all the wavelengths of the spectrum. He thought it can’t do because he imagined it would be like mixing all the colours of paint. You just get brown. (Keats had a problem with Newton too. He accuses him of ‘unweaving the rainbow’, as if knowing how rainbows are formed spoils them. But it doesn’t. It makes them even better.) The only thing I didn’t like in that film was a bit when he was supposed to be working on one of his paintings in a creative frenzy, and he spits on it. That’s to show how physical and passionate he was in his painting. Spitting on an oil painting wouldn’t do anything at all.
The other film that reminds me of the sense of light and space up on the cliffs here is Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’. Especially the aerial combat scenes. The cliché with filmed dog fights between Spitfires and ME 109s shows it happening over a patchwork of green fields, but Nolan’s film gives you these astounding, endless seeming, horizons. Also, I had a strange experience with a Spitfire once when I’d only been living in Dover a month or so. I was walking along the cliffs past Langdon, and past the lighthouse, with an idea that I’d go through St Margaret’s and all the way to Deal (there was a happy holiday in Deal I wanted to remember). Looking up I was noticing that the sky was just that sort of blue we think of when we think of blue skies, and there was a Spitfire. Just for a moment I thought something like ‘Ah yes, all that about it being the 21st century now, and there being “computers” and Donald Trump and so on was a mad dream, and really it’s 1940 and we’re in the middle of the Battle of Britain’ (where I happened to be standing there was nothing I could see around me that couldn’t have been there 80 years ago). The Spitfire did a victory roll and turned to go back to the airfield. Apparently there are three or four of them still flying regularly, and it costs two or three grand for a half hour flight.
Thinking about Turner doesn’t make me think of trying to paint anything I see when I’m walking. I wouldn’t dare. I take pictures with my phone. I’ve done hundreds, and once in a while I feel sure I must have caught some of those special qualities of light and space, but I haven’t really. Even if the picture is quite good it’s no good because it just looks like all those stock library pictures of this or that glorious vista you get for nothing, and without having asked, somewhere on your phone and your computer. All those pictures of deserts and oceans and ruins and forests and paddy fields and so on. It doesn’t feel like that when you’re actually taking the photograph, but really every picture is mediated and filtered out by the ubiquity of picturing.
There’s one photograph I got on my phone that’s alright I think, but it’s possible it’s only like that for me. It’s a picture of the view from a bench at Connaught Park, the Victorian park that occupies the slopes just below Dover Castle, and I probably only think it’s a good picture because I’m imagining it captures (pictures are often supposed to ‘capture’ something) the feeling I had when I took it. Come to think of it, as I took the picture I was lining up the camera so as to make the image comply with familiar Claudian pictorial conventions. The same set of rules for composition in landscape painting that Turner was still using 150 years after Claude Lorrain established them in the 17th century. The main rule has to do with how you position a tree. You have a dominant tree in the foreground, and this has a heavy workload, compositionally, giving scale and depth to everything else. It acts as a partial framing device for the middle ground and the rolling hills in the distance. Often the main tree will sit directly on one or other of the sides of the picture, only partly visible, giving a proscenium arch effect. Another way is to have almost the whole tree visible within the pictorial space giving a strong figure/field relationship, but still pushing out towards the picture plane to give maximum spatial contrast with the hazy hills, miles away. Or, like me with this photograph, you can have both in one picture.
Dover is in a valley, so if you stand on one side and look across at the other one you get exactly that ideal spatial effect, with a foreground, a middle ground, and then the far distance. And of course it’s a park, so all the trees are nicely arranged. But none of that would have mattered if the light hadn’t been so perfect. It was late afternoon, and it was late in the summer. There’s a certain kind of light that Titian was very good at, where everything has a coppery penumbra. You get it in a lot of English painting too, especially Samuel Palmer and Gainsborough. So, not the very clear sort of light I saw that time in the field next to Langdon Hole, where everything seems unnaturally well defined and exact. This was the sort of light that rests on things like a coating of fairy dust. It looks like a blessing. And the other thing I should mention is that I felt perfectly at peace, sitting on this bench by a tree and looking across at the hills beyond the Western Heights. (Thinking about this a bit more I’m aware now that, not fully consciously, what I seemed to be seeing in the distance were the hills in Alfred Bestall’s illustrations for the Rupert Bear stories I was so keen on as a child, in which the whole of an idealised England was a great playground for the little bear and his pals.) You know, about once every four or five years you experience perfect contentment and happiness, and that feeling seems to be a kind of recollection? It had slipped your mind that everything is wonderful. It was that. Everything made perfect sense. The photograph isn’t bad at all.
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