Few other places in Kent – or England – make as strong an initial visual impression as Dover. Your attention is immediately grabbed by the magnificent medieval castle topping the iconic White Cliffs, a pair of national symbols that pack a mighty punch. However, this is also Europe’s busiest ferry port, with roads designed to shift large volumes of traffic in and out of Dover at speed; it’s hardly the most enticing town in which to linger.
Visitors tend not to explore much further than the two key sights, but there is much more to discover in this most historic of Kent locations, including remarkable Bronze Age and Roman remains and the awesome Napoleonic forts of the Western Heights, hiding in plain sight on the opposite headland to the castle. Hiking a section of the White Cliffs is a given, and for more gentle walks there are parks and gardens to be explored inland at Kearsney and on the coast at Samphire Hoe.
What to see and do
Since the 11th century this impregnable castle, described as the ‘key to England’, has guarded Dover and served as the ceremonial gateway to the country. Built atop a pre-existing Iron Age hillfort, its 80 acres of grounds encompass a Roman lighthouse, a Saxon church, a recreation of the medieval court of Henry II inside the Great Tower, and a military museum. Burrowed into the chalk beneath the compound are some four miles of tunnels, the first created during the siege of 1216, then more extensive networks dug during the Napoleonic and world wars; troops were stationed here right up until 1958.
To fully explore this fascinating site takes at least half a day; the walk around its extensive battlements, offering panoramic views of the surroundings, is an hour on its own. Tickets are slightly cheaper if booked in advance online, and if you haven’t brought a picnic (recommended), there are a couple of cafés within the grounds.
Reaching a commanding height of 350ft in places and pockmarked by striations of dark flint, Dover’s White Cliffs flank either side of the port. The National Trust, custodians of around six miles of the cliffs, describes them as ‘a symbol of steadfastness, safety and home’. A staunch repulse to invaders, a warm welcome to returning citizens and a wonder of the natural world, they are as symbolic of England as the Eiffel Tower is of France.
Created 66 million years ago when ocean floor deposits were raised above sea level, the chalk cliffs appear monolithic. They were mentioned by Julius Caesar as an impregnable piece of the coastline during his attempts to invade Britain in 55 BC. However, battered by the Channel’s stormy seas and exposed to the elements, the cliffs are fragile, slowly but constantly eroding; occasionally, enormous chunks crash to the sea. No matter how tempting it may be, venturing close to the cliff edges is never advised.
Start exploring this treasured environment from the grass-roofed National Trust visitor centre which blends seamlessly with the greenery around it. The café here offers stupendous views across the Channel. One-and-a-half miles from the visitor centre is the entrance to the Fan Bay Deep Shelter. Climb down 125 steep steps to explore this claustrophobic tunnel complex constructed in between 1940 and 1941 as accommodation for troops operating the gun battery that once existed above. Breath fresh air on the open-air ledge in the cliffs accessed from the tunnels, where there are a pair of concrete ‘sound mirrors’ from World War I.
Dover’s town centre is focused around pedestrianised Market Square, in a corner of which is the modern building housing the tourist office and Dover Museum. The highlight at this terrific free museum is the Bronze Age Boat Gallery which displays a remarkably well-preserved section of a boat constructed out of oak some 3,500 years ago and discovered in 1992 by construction workers building a section of the A20 road through Dover.
A short walk west of Market Square, a utilitarian and uninviting building houses the best preserved of several Roman ruins discovered beneath Dover (all the others have been reburied after their initial excavations). Dating from around 200 AD, the Roman Painted House gets its name from the sections of painted plaster remarkably still intact on the ruin’s walls. Once a fine residence for visiting Roman dignitaries, the building was destroyed when Dover’s fort was enlarged in 270 AD. In the process, three of its main rooms were buried intact, the rubble protecting the delicate wall paintings and the building’s hypocaust (underground central heating).
Sitting at an angle to Cannon Street, Dover’s central commercial thoroughfare, is St Mary’s Church, likely one of the three churches in the town mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. The main tower mainly dates from Norman times but the rest of the church was largely rebuilt in Victorian Gothic Style. Cannon Street becomes Biggin Street which eventually leads to the Maison Dieu, one of Dover’s most historic buildings with a stunning interior that is undergoing restoration until 2024. On the way back to Market Square, make a detour down narrow St Edmund’s Walk to view St Edmund’s Chapel, built in 1252 and said to be the smallest church in England.
Dover’s impressive harbour, with its piers and breakwaters, has evolved over many centuries. It is split into two regions: the Eastern Docks, from where all the cross-Channel ferries operate, and the Western Docks with its outstretched harbour arms providing moorings for enormous cruise liners and cargo ships.
To reach the Western Docks section on foot, keep following the pedestrianised street south from Market Square towards the A2 where an underpass leads across and out into a handsome set of Victorian terraces and the promenade running alongside the shingle beach and harbour. Look down to see the black granite start/finish line for the North Downs Way. To one side is a Sustans Portrait Bench with two-dimensional silhouettes of Olympic torchbearer Jamie Clark, the author Ian Fleming and singer Vera Lynn, cut from CorTen steel.
A pair of concrete plinths rise up dead ahead, each topped with the simplified image of a swimmer – one heading out to France, the other coming into Dover. If you walk east along Marine Parade, in the direction of the ferry terminal, you’ll shortly come to a bust of Captain Matthew Webb – in 1875 he was the first man to swim the Channel unaided. In perhaps the ultimate approach to Slow Travel, it took Webb 21 hours and 45 minutes to swim from Admiralty Pier to Calais. In the century and half since, only just over 2,000 people have successfully matched Webb in tackling what is considered the Everest of sea swimming.
The Grand Shaft is one of Dover’s most remarkable, hidden architectural treasures. It’s a triple helix staircase built into the cliffs between 1806 and 1809 to enable the troops stationed atop the Western Heights to quickly descend to the town. During Victorian times the three intertwined staircases, dropping 140ft, were separately used by different ranks: ‘officers and their ladies’, ‘sergeants and their wives’ and ‘soldiers and their women’.
The shaft is opened to the public by the Western Heights Preservation Society on the third Sunday of the month from March to November between 10.00 and 16.00. The Grand Shaft is impressive, but the ingenious Drop Reboubt nature-encroached remains of the Western Height’s other Napoleonic fortresses, linked by towering brick-lined ditches, will blow your mind.
The bomb-proof pentagonal fortress was made by cutting a deep, wide moat into the hillside. It is perfectly camouflaged against enemy attack and is awe-inspiring in its enormous scale, like an ancient and enigmatic ruin. Occupied by the army up until 1961 and now managed by English Heritage, the grounds are free to explore: the most direct access from town is via the steep set of steps that ascend from the side of atmospheric Cowgate Cemetery behind Albany Place.
The Western Heights Preservation Society run tours inside the fort on the third Sunday of the month from April to September. This is the only way to access the grassy top, where you can see the scant remains of the second of Dover’s Roman pharos (lighthouses).