FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Hitting the heights

Posted in Dover, England by folkestonejack on September 10, 2016

It is hard to miss the mighty sight of the medieval castle on any trip to Dover and it is undoubtedly one of the most visited historic complexes in the British Isles with around 350,000 visitors a year. Most visitors pay little attention to the hillside opposite and might be surprised to learn that is the location of a vast defensive fortification known as the Western Heights with a footprint that far exceeds that of the venerable castle.

A view of the Drop Redoubt from the moat

A view of the Drop Redoubt from the moat

The extensive fortifications on the Western Heights were originally intended to counter the prospect of imminent invasion from Napoleon at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but by the time they were completed it was his nephew that threatened England. The fortifications stretch from the Drop Redoubt and Detached Bastion (1804) at one end to the Citadel at the other.

In its time it would have been impossible to miss the Western Heights but this changed with the departure of the army in the 1950s/60s and the demolition of the vast barracks. The gradual takeover of nature has largely hidden the fortifications, though the Citadel has remained in use throughout (first as a prison 1952-1957, then as a young offender’s institute 1957-2002 and most recently as an immigration removal centre).

The Western Heights Preservation Society has been carrying out vital conservation work and research on the heights since 2000, increasing public awareness of the site by opening up the Drop Redoubt and showing off the Grand Shaft to visitors. This year has seen the opening of another part of the complex to visitors, the North Entrance, which closed in 1968.

The fort-side portal of the North Entrance

The fort-side portal of the North Entrance

The entrance in front of us today dates from the early 1860s and would have been an intimidating way to enter the fort. To enter the Western Heights traffic would have to cross two bridges and negotiate a tunnel with a sharp left turn before passing through the inner portal.

It is remarkable what a core of 15 or so volunteers have been able to achieve here and you could see the pride as they showed off the entrance to us with such enthusiasm. Although there have been setbacks, such as the theft of a substantial quantity of the oak blocks that formed the road bed of the tunnel, this is a fantastic success story and an important milestone in the preservation of the country’s military history.

Our tour took us down the tunnel to the drawbridge, down a set of steps off the road tunnel into a series of gun rooms which look out upon the inner bridge and lastly into a series of astonishing brick vaulted water tanks which supplied the Grand Shaft barracks. Every notion of what I might see on this visit to the entrance was surpassed as I began to appreciate just how elaborate and extensive this entrance actually was.

The North Entrance Tunnel

The North Entrance Tunnel

The Western Heights Preservation Society are using the visits during Heritage Open Days 2016 as something of a test event with the hope of being able to open this up to more visitors in 2017. It really is worth checking out the sights that make up the Western Heights, each of which is remarkable in its own way.

On this visit I also re-acquainted myself with the unique Grand Shaft, a triple staricase that was designed as a way of transferring alot of troops from the barracks to the harbour very quickly in the event of an invasion, and St Martin’s Battery, a series of gun-emplacements open to the public as part of the Western Heights trail.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day out and it reminded me that I really must get back to the drop redoubt on one of the open days organised by the Western Heights Preservation Society. I gather rather alot has changed since I last visited around 2003-4!


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Exploring the historic riches of Dover

Posted in Dover, England by folkestonejack on September 10, 2016

This weekend sees the annual celebration of culture that opens the doors to the historic wonders that we often overlook in our towns and cities. I took the train down to Dover to sample the sights of a town that doesn’t always receive the greatest of press write-ups.

I wonder how many passengers getting off a train at Dover Priory think about how the station got its name or, if they do make the connection with a priory, assume that is a long vanished sight. Instead, the remains of St Martin’s Priory are located just a few streets away. Three surviving buildings from the priory were restored and absorbed into the newly established Dover College between 1871 and 1886.

The refectory at Dover College

The refectory at Dover College

The ancient priory was founded by Henry I in 1330 although construction did not begin until the following year. It would take the best part of a decade to complete the work and the end result would have been very grand indeed. The priory church at the heart of the complex was said to be a third of the size of Canterbury Cathedral whilst the accommodation would have needed to be fit for the steady stream of important guests passing through (although there is much to suggest that the inadequacies of the accommodation for royal guests led to the upgrading of Dover Castle!).

Our fascinating guided tour of the school took us around the three buildings that have survived to the present day, mainly on account of their re-use for agricultural purposes following the dissolution of the monasteries. These are the gatehouse, the King’s Hall (now converted into the school chapel) and the refectory.

Astonishingly, the refectory is still used for its original purpose and makes for a pretty impressive school dining hall. The faint traces of a fresco at the eastern end make it a quite special space, but even more surprisingly the Bayeux Tapestry is said to have hung here at one stage (it turns out that the Bishop of Bayeux owned much land in Dover so the connection is less strange than it might seem at first).

The gatehouse

The gatehouse

Aside from the historical dimension, I have to say that the tranquility of the grounds is quite astonishing and you would hardly know that you are in the middle of a bustling town, particularly when you stop for a moment in the walled garden. I can’t imagine that many schools have a finer view from their green with Dover Castle on the horizon.

The weekend has seen a rich catalogue of historic buildings open in Dover, carefully co-ordinated by the Dover Society for Heritage Open Days. Besides Dover College I managed to take a look around Maison Dieu House, a Jacobean house owned by the Town Council; St. Edmund’s Chapel, a 13th century cemetery chapel; the Grand Shaft triple staircase; the North Entrance to the Western Heights and the octagonal Unitarian Church from 1820. I also managed a quick peek through the doors of Maison Dieu (Town Hall) but I’ll have to come back on a future occasion to take a good look round.

It is no exaggeration to say that the heritage open days have been fundamental in exposing just how many astonishing properties exist across the country and I loved my day in Dover. Thank you to all the volunteers and enthusiastic tour guides who made this such a delight.


Above and below the clifftops of England

Posted in Dover, England by folkestonejack on July 23, 2016

In England’s darkest hour, in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation from Dunkirk, the white cliffs of Dover became the new front line. On a visit in July 1940 Winston Churchill saw the proof of this for himself, watching enemy shipping use the channel without fear of attack. Infuriated, Churchill issued an order to install new guns at Dover, thereby beginning the story of Fan Bay Deep Shelter.

A small stretch of tunnel infrastructure was dismantled by the scrapmen before they abandoned their work

A small stretch of tunnel infrastructure was dismantled by the scrapmen before they abandoned their work

Work on the gun battery at Fan Bay began on 20th November 1940 and the guns were brought into operation on 28th February 1941. In this remarkably short time Royal Engineers from the 172nd Tunnelling Company had carved a deep shelter out of the chalk cliffs that could accommodate 180 soldiers. The gun battery was most effective in its role as a deterrent, even if it didn’t actually sink many enemy ships.

Added interest comes from two sound mirrors located on site, one dating from the First World War and the other from the 1920s. The sound mirrors were the first attempts to develop an early warning system that could detect incoming enemy aircraft, though a relatively short lived invention as radar arrived on the scene in 1935.

In the 1970s a campaign to clear the White Cliffs of their wartime structures saw the entrance demolished and the sound mirrors covered up, leaving the shelter hidden to all but the most intrepid explorers. The National Trust bought this stretch of coastline in 2012 and came to discover that they had also acquired the shelter. After a major exercise in excavation the site re-opened to the public on 20th July 2015.

One of the two early sound mirrors

One of the two early sound mirrors

Intrigued by the fanfare of publicity we got around to visiting today and were fascinated from the moment we started descending the 125 steps to get to the tunnel system, 70 feet underground.

On arrival you get kitted out with a hard hat and lamp before you enter the tunnels. The light from the lamps was perfectly sufficient to illuminate everything that we were directed to by our knowledgeable tour guide and the helmets certainly saved us from sore heads!

Once you have made it down the sometimes damp stairs there is nothing too taxing about this walk. The next hour saw us make our way round the complex, into the daylight to see the two sound mirrors, then back into the darkness of the tunnel system before climbing back up to the entrance.

Along the way we saw some of the traces of habitation left by the men stationed here, which included a carving of a face, wartime grafitti, a running man etched into the walls (perhaps the Saint) and even a few games of noughts and crosses. It certainly suggests the boredom of soldiery as much as anything else!

I was particularly pleased that the site is displayed as it was left rather than reconstructed with faux bunk-beds and the like. The partly dismantled colliery arches are even left where the scrapmen dumped them on abandoning their salvage operation in the 1950s.

Noughts and crosses anyone?

Noughts and crosses anyone?

After our hour long tour of the complex we took a ten minute walk further along the clifftops to South Foreland Lighthouse.

I am ashamed to say that I have walked by it in the past without ever realising how significant a historic site it is, remarkable for a surprising number of scientific firsts. The experiments of Faraday and Marconi respectively saw it become the first lighthouse to use electric light and the site to receive the first international radio transmission. On top of that it was the highest lighthouse in England on account of its position atop 300ft tall cliffs.

South Foreland Lighthouse was the surprising highlight of the day for us with its incredible story and a hands-on experience that soon demonstrated why being a lighthouse keeper when the equipment breaks down would have been an unenviable role!

The combination of these two attractions, with a delightful walk along the clifftops, made this a rather lovely day out. Sadly, it was not such a good day for folk on the roads who were enduring 14 hour long queues to get into the port or the locals trying to get around their gridlocked town.


There are just over 100 tickets for tours of the shelter on sale each day at a cost of £10 per adult (free to National Trust members). The Fan Bay Ticket Office is located next to the White Cliffs Visitor Centre and you will get a map showing the route to the entrance, conservatively billed as a 40 minute walk.

The lighthouse is just another ten minutes further on and costs £6 per adult (free to National Trust members). You can’t access the site without a tour guide, but it’s one of those sights where the richness of the history really comes alive in the hands of an enthusiastic guide.

The walk along the clifftops (accessed from Athol Terrace) is a delight even without going into either site, offering splendid views of the White Cliffs, Dover Castle and the seemingly endless queue of ferries approaching the Europe’s busiest passenger port.


Operation Dynamo, Dover and Dunkirk

Posted in Dover, England by folkestonejack on August 6, 2011

Although I visited Dover Castle as a child my memories of the place are almost non-existant. In fact, the only thing that really lodged itself in my brain was the sheer exhaustion of walking up to the castle from the town! So, a visit to fill in those gaps was long overdue…

The Officers' New Barracks at Dover Castle, with the Roman pharos and St Mary-in-Castro in the background

The last few years have seen a number of the attractions updated in Dover Castle, the most recent being an exhibition about Operation Dynamo – the Dunkirk evacuation of May 1940 – which was co-ordinated by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay from the tunnels underneath the castle.

Evacuation from Dunkirk

I was interested to see the Dunkirk exhibition as both my grandfathers had enlisted as professional soldiers in the 1920s and went out to Belgium and France in the British Expeditionary Force. Both men were later evacuated from Dunkirk. It was an experience that neither of them really talked about.

The exhibition had something of a slow start with a couple of rooms explaining the beginnings of the second world war before moving on to clever projections in the tunnel casemates using real film footage to dramatise events. It’s very innovative and visually stunning – which I would recommend. Inevitably it presents a sanitised version of events, which is probably not a bad thing.

In 1958 my maternal grandfather, Alf, was concerned that the film ‘Dunkirk’ would show the terrible sights that he saw but was quite relieved that it didn’t come close. I’ve seen the film a few times and it seems horrific enough as it is, so I dread to think what the reality must have been like.

In a similar vein, my paternal grandfather, Pete, went back to Dunkirk on a coach tour with my grandmother many years later. She recalled that the bloke opposite was telling his wife ‘All the trees were burning [to] ash’. On asking him about this my grandfather replied ‘Of course I saw it’ but that was it – he just didn’t like to talk about it.

After reaching Dunkirk Pete spent a number of days on the beach (with an RAF man?) and amongst the dunes (where he said it was safer) before he managed to make his way back to England. On arrival the men were put on a train but Pete didn’t know where he was until he saw Warren Halt (Folkestone Warren). Everyone was throwing cards out and he took a field service card and wrote out a quick message to his father in Folkestone telling him that he was home safe, and threw the card out of the window. We still have the card today.

Neither of my grandfathers could swim, though we know that both spent time wading through the water and seeing the photographs of men queueing in the waters makes me wonder what they went through.

Anyway, getting back to the exhibition… once you have made it through the interactive element you get to see some wonderful recreations of some of original rooms from the adjacent army HQ – such as the Telephone Exchange, Repeater Station and Coast Artillery Operations Room. Although you can’t take photos, English Heritage have helpfully put a great 360 degree view of the Repeater Station on their website.

Dover Eastern Docks (as seen from Dover Castle)

All in all, it was a very worthwhile 45, 50 or 60 minutes – these are the differing times quoted for the experience on signs and leaflets! Unfortunately, I didn’t check my watch to see how long it actually took us. Once you emerge into the daylight you are presented with an impressive view out over Dover Eastern Docks. You could be forgiven for thinking the tunnels had taken you further if, as in my case, your mobile provider had just sent you a text welcoming you to France…

Underground Hospital

The underground hospital is quite a remarkable tour, yet again emphasising the sheer extent of the network of tunnels underneath the castle (which was perhaps best captured by a 3D animation in the Secret Wartime Tunnels exhibition) which was led by a tour guide with an audio track of ‘background conversations’ taking place around you.

Visitors queue to go on a tour of the underground hospital

The tour tries to capture the wartime experience with the running story of a Mosquito pilot being brought in for an emergency operation – which the mix of flickering lights and background audio carries out quite effectively in the operating theatre. Mind you, it has to be said that the background conversation sometimes competed a little too well with what our guide was trying to say!

As the castle (and the tunnels) were apparently spared from the bombardment obliterating much of Dover the tunnels soon became home to workers who chose to remain after their shifts rather than return home. It’s hard to imagine now, but it must have been the most incredible hive of activity in those days.

As a final touch you leave the hospital complex through a double helix staircase.

The Great Tower

On the whole I try and avoid buying guide books these days (having accumulated far too many in the past) but you probably do need one here. The recently refurbished Great Tower has no signs to direct you around the building (we missed one room) and no information boards to explain what you are seeing. As Brett said, it looks as though they are leaving the Castle to speak for itself (it’s saying, ‘Look at me – I’m beautiful…be impressed!!!).

The Great Tower lies at the heart of Dover Castle

Indeed, one of the strangest things about the whole complex is the lack of any exhibition about the phases of construction at the castle – just a couple of display boards in the grounds. That’s not to take away from a truly incredible historic site, but I couldn’t quite knit together all the different phases of construction/usage in my head.

Admiralty Look out / First World War Fire Command Post

The Admiralty Look out / First World War Fire Command Post was one of the unexpected highlights of the visit with tons of display boards explaining what you could see and an impressive restoration of the interior rooms (completed in 2008).

Admiralty Look out / First World War Fire Command Post (exterior)

Admiralty Look out / First World War Fire Command Post (interior)

The concrete platform at the top provides another great view over the harbour and a sign that made me laugh a little at the prospect of anyone attempting to sunbathe in Dover with the weather deterioriating around us…

Sunbathing in Dover?

Anyway, after finishing off the day with a walk along the battlements the rain began to make a more determined assault so we headed out and back to the station to catch a train home.