Lonely Dover

I moved to Dover two years ago, and discovered almost immediately, and quite surprisingly, that I feel right at home here. I didn’t think I was the sort of person who can say of a certain place that ‘This is my kind of town’, but it turns out I am, and this is it. I’ve ended up living here more or less by accident (long story), and ahead of the move I’d been thinking I probably knew just about all anyone needs to know about Dover. Everyone does. Everybody’s heard of it – There’s a smattering of general knowledge about the history (the Romans, Dunkirk etc.), and about the town’s main feature and function, its port. And, of course, I’d been through the port a number of times, on my ways to and from somewhere or other in Europe.

There is a background to my discovery that I actually did not really know much about Dover, or understand what living here was going to be like. For most of my life I’ve had this vague sort of feeling that I’m in the wrong place. It’s as if I’m always aware that I’m supposed to be somewhere else, but can’t seem to remember where, or I’m sitting in someone’s seat and they’re going to come along and ask me to please move over. This faint but persistent sense of displacement actually has a name. It’s called ‘monachopsis’. (I should say quickly here that I’m not about to try and link this personal idiosyncrasy to any wider social phenomenon. It’s not a metaphor to do with the many current refugee crises or anything. As a white heterosexual Englishman I enjoy about as much freedom of movement as anyone can do these days.)

This feeling has a strong aesthetic dimension. One summer I spent a fortnight in a villa in Tuscany as the guest of a wealthy friend, with a red-tiled balcony and a marvellous view of the hills with their vineyards and olive groves, and I felt guilty because all that text-book beauty and luxury was wasted on me. I might just as well have been looking at a screen saver.

The kind of beauty I appreciate in a place must have a particular bunch of characteristics. It should include some standard congenial components – interesting architecture; eventful scenery (here there are spectacular skies, the cliffs, Spitfires doing victory rolls overhead, and Calais clearly visible on the horizon); plants and animals (a native orchid grows here in abundance – jewel-like blue butterflies, golden slow worms and tiny lizards)…and so on. But, for me, there also need to be countermanding signs of neglect and decrepitude, and a feeling that sinister political and social undercurrents are at work. Also, a sense of the uncanny is important – the pairing of familiarity and strangeness. Dover is a strange place.

I moved to Dover, as I say, by accident. I was surprised by how small it is, and how much it seemed to be in need of investment – but not all that surprised. English seaside towns are often quite run down. I was surprised, too, by its isolation. Everyone’s heard of it, and many of us have been through it, but in all sorts of ways it’s on its own. I was made aware of the greater possibilities here in the first week when I was getting a haircut, and the chap asked if I’d been to the Western Heights? So, I said No…What’s that? He pointed out the window to a big hill – ‘Up there. Have a look’. There are several approaches to this steep hill overlooking Dover Priory station, the main roundabout, and the barber’s I was just in. This first time I took a route that begins with a very considerable stone stairway, followed by a taxing upward yomp through long grass and hawthorn. You traverse a slope and get to a little gate, with a sign giving guidelines for tourists (which seems pointless, because you’re on your own). Going through the gate you descend in to a leafy dell. An actual leafy dell. Walking upwards again, a gentle slope this time, through waist-high grasses and wildflowers, scattering butterflies and grasshoppers as you go, you step in to a thing called the ‘Drop Redoubt’. An immense structure, whose presence you could not have suspected until you’re right in it. It’s a fort, but instead of being built upwards, like most forts, it was built down. The Western Heights is a great green hill with an underground fortress inside it – gun emplacements, barracks, munitions stores, even an invisible parade ground at the top. A thousand heavily-armed, well supplied, men could be in there, and you would pass it without guessing.

I fell in love with the Drop Redoubt instantly; and part of this love was to do with the fact that, even though it’s huge, and spectacular, is of great historical and architectural significance, and also is really very strange, I had never heard of it. Hardly anyone has. A lot of people who actually live in Dover don’t know it’s there. They all know about Dover Castle, directly opposite the Drop Redoubt on the hills to the east, because it’s visible from almost every part of town, and it’s in all the tourist information, along with the White Cliffs beyond. And the thought I had, on that first walk, was of a sort I’ve often had subsequently as I wander around a lot of places in Dover, most of them even more obscure. The thought was that the Western Heights both should and should not be better known. My love for this place I’d just found, feeling like the first European to encounter Machu Picchu, had to do with this (obviously irrational) conviction that nobody else has found it, and that it was mine. I go there a lot, and it’s never actually busy apart from the Napoleonic Wars re-enactment events up there, about twice a year, but when I’m walking there and I do happen to encounter a dog walker or a hiker, or a local family taking the air together, I feel like telling them to get off my land.

The Drop Redoubt was my gateway drug, if we think of exploring Dover as a sort of addiction, albeit a mild and harmless one. It was the first of many discoveries, each more isolated, and, therefore, more my own, than the last. The feeling associated with this is based on a paradox – the delicious loneliness must be underlined by the fact that, very clearly, a place had once been busy, thriving even, and now hardly anybody goes there anymore. The neglect is further underlined by the often rather depressing and squalid traces left by, as far as I can tell, the only other people visiting a lot of these places – the homeless, looking for a bit of shelter, and youths looking for somewhere to get off their heads. The things I am now very used to seeing, that I see at pretty well every site, are the signs of desperation and of boredom – beer cans, white cider bottles, energy drinks, various sorts of drug taking gear, crappy graffiti, and, most heart breaking, the abandoned, soggy, sleeping bags.

A great deal of the architecture I began to discover is, like the Drop Redoubt, military, and is the outcome of three separate invasion scares – the Napoleonic, the Mid-Victorian (the threat there was Napoleon’s less distinguished successor, Napoleon III), and finally WW2. From the last war there are very many pillboxes, some in the open, on cliff tops overlooking the Channel, and many others hidden in the woods, all that military geometry crumbling back down in to the earth, overgrown with ferns and creepers. And almost all of them, if you look inside, with those latter-day archeological artefacts; the cans, the moldy bedding, the crappy graffiti.

I’ll try to give a better sense of all this by describing a walk of mine that begins at the Drop Redoubt itself. This is, basically, an enormous ditch or dry moat, up to 50 foot deep, with flint and brick ‘revetting’, there to keep the volume of the hill from falling in. These immense walls are at a slight angle, like Inca temples. And, although it’s not at all busy, there are walkers and so on around; there are sad looking information signs, most of them defaced either by vandals or just by natural decay, installed during some forgotten tourism initiative, and now only partly legible. (There is, by the way, a volunteer group who keep it as tidy as possible, and they have a website and everything. But there’s no cash.) Moving from its eastern to its western end, either through the redoubt itself, or skirting its top and looking down into it all the way, you come out the other side and cross a road, through a basic car park (wondering what those few men just sitting alone in their cars are doing) and enter a tiny lane through some woods.

The Drop Redoubt has a sister structure called the Detached Bastion, and you can’t get in to it because all the access has been blocked off, but as you walk along this lane it’s below you, on your left, and it’s a lost, deep green world down there, as close to jungle as you’ll find in the British isles. Dense, impassable foliage; tall trees, thick vines and ferns festoon the great sloping walls; and, quite weirdly, the tree canopy is below you. There are the remains of a Victorian iron-work bridge, very rusted now. The girders that span the dry moat are standard utility I-beam in section, but the columns underneath them are needlessly ornamental. Huge cast iron supports that nobody was meant to notice especially, but to which the Victorian military engineers have added decorative flourishes.

Stepping out of the thick shrubbery that lines the top of the Detached Bastion you find yourself looking down in to a third great moat-like structure, The Citadel, and this too has been made inaccessible, but not by nature, or the local authority. It’s a secured area, property of the Ministry of Defence I think. The bottom of the wide ditch is close mown grass, like an immense bowling green, and the top has new razor wire and security cameras fixed to its inner lip. On your right is a steep downward slope, almost sheer, and a view across Coombe Valley – rows of cubic council houses that look, on bright days, like a model with pieces you could reach out and pick up. You can see the fields on the other side of Dover, with grazing livestock. And you will begin to encounter more stuff from WW2 now; the concrete bunkers dug in to the hillside. Look inside one and you’ll find, of course, the beer cans, the tragic bedding, the graffiti.

At this stage it’s still possible you are not completely alone. Not often, but occasionally, you may encounter another person, and you greet each other by raising both eyebrows and jerking your chin up a bit, stepping aside to make way on the narrow path through the long grass. The Citadel, after its active military period, used to be a borstal, apparently. It all looks OK when it’s bright, but when I’m walking there on wet and overcast days, feeling melancholy, I think of those miserable 16 year olds being taken there after having been caught breaking in to a factory or something – how very alien and brutal this place would look. This is the kind of difficult geographical location, hilltops, promontories, that sees a lot of activity in periods of national emergency, and hardly any at any other time.

The Citadel Battery, a substantial gun emplacement at the far end of Western Heights, is one of those places that show the sort of architectural accretion, new structures built on top of older ones, that we see imagined as the future of LA in ‘Blade Runner’. It has mountings for three large artillery pieces, dating from the mid 19th century, and then there are a lot of additional structures from WW2 (and the graffiti, and beer cans etc.). It feels like the last outpost.

But, if you keep going, there’s a narrow, very overgrown, very degraded concrete path, and if you follow that (only because it must be going to something, otherwise why would they have put it there?), you come, eventually, to another set of concrete structures (they used a lot of concrete in WW2). Your chances of running in to another person here are almost nil. There are three octagonal concrete enclosures set 5 foot deep in to the hill, each about 30 foot across. The wide entrances, one flat section of the octagon, would have had steel gates (but all that’s left now are the huge rusty hinges). Against the walls in each of these pits are six boxy structures, like lean-to coal bunkers, open at the sides, and there would have been steel doors there too, but, again, just the chunky metal hinges are left. These pits are anti-aircraft gun emplacements. There would have been a big 3.7 inch gun in each one (that’s the size of the shell it fired), and the cubic structures were ammo lockers. Visiting, alone, on a wet day, after a long walk, not knowing what you were really after here, it’s nearly impossible, amongst the lichen and the buddleia and wild rose bushes, to imagine these positions in action – The sweating gun crews, noise, violent recoil, muzzle flashes and smoke. Last time I was there the only sound was the pitter-patter of rain on leaves and cracked concrete.

That was just an example. There are a lot of abandoned and forgotten sites: most of them are military, but quite a few are not. There are the unused Aycliffe allotments on Shakespeare Cliff – on a recent visit I found that, for no obvious reason, one of them had just been torched. I have an allotment myself, near the centre of Dover (actually Dover is so small that everything is near the centre), on a terraced slope at the southern end of Western Heights, called Pilot’s Meadow. It overlooks the town, the castle, and the seafront, and from there I can get to a mysterious free-standing column, like an anonymous monument, in about twenty minutes. It’s a slog because it’s such an inaccessible spot, but it’s not actually that far. From the allotment, if you’re heading towards the top of the heights, you go up an imposing stone staircase called ‘The Sixty-four Steps’, and then carry on up using the earthwork steps – through the long grass, the hawthorn and wild rose bushes. And about two thirds of the way up, off to your right, you can see the top of this column. This takes some getting to because the incline is almost too sheer to traverse. You won’t easily manage it in wet weather because you’re likely to slide down through the grass and get caught in brambles. When you reach this thing, it turns out to be a tower of ornamental brickwork, about 20 foot tall, just standing there on its own. Why have they gone to all the trouble of making it look so good, with patterns and profiles and so on? For one thing, nobody could possibly happen to be passing it there, where it is. But, also, it’s a part of a secret underground fort (it’s a sewer vent or ‘stink pipe’ apparently), so you’d think it would be quite important not to draw attention to it.

There are some caves in the cliffs off South Military Road, all that’s left of an 18th century chalk mine, hidden behind the trees and bushes. At some point, I’m guessing at least a century ago, the entrances were filled in with huge masonry blocks, like castle walls, but now there are rough holes someone has knocked through, just about big enough for one person to crawl in. And, once inside, flashing the torch of your phone around, what do you see? Apart from the white chalk walls of a surprisingly big space, with horizontal flint seams, and a floor of fine dust like the surface of the moon. You see beer cans and moldy sleeping bags. Someone’s done a big A for anarchy on the wall.

Those are just a few more examples. There are so many of these secret places around this tiny, complicated, town. I could speculate about why it is they make me feel at home, but it would just be that – pointless speculation. Anyway, who cares? I’m sure there are others. There must be some other people who go to these places, and have this irrational sense that they exist for them alone. Luckily, we never bump in to each other.


If you want to visit any of these places, I could take you…
The photographs in this visual essay are not captioned (though some locations may be identifiable from descriptions in the text). This is partly just because a lot of the places don’t have names, but mainly it’s because Lonely Dover is a response – not a guide for walkers. These locations, although all legally accessible, and within walking distance of the centre of Dover, are not well known and are not always easy to find. I would like to offer to show them to anyone who is interested. You may want to visit something you see in the pictures. Or perhaps it’s not that specific, and you just want to have a wander. This isn’t fully planned. It’s not a tour or anything. But get in touch and we’ll see…

Simon Bill    sjrbill@hotmail.com