Dover Western Docks was once one of the most romantic destinations on Britain’s railway network. To have a ticket to Dover Western Docks meant you were traveling on the boat-train; your eventual destination was probably Paris. If, like me, you were thrifty, you were probably traveling at dead of night into the bargain, which added to the romance. Theoretically, at least.
Before ever I made the trip I thought the boat-train somehow trundled from the pier right into the bowels of the cross-Channel ferry. It was a disappointment, then, to have to disembark at a cold, dark, anonymous railway terminal and walk the last couple of hundred yards. Any remaining shreds of romance were irrevocably whisked away on to the chill night breeze by the state of the vessel at dead of night. Squalor is the word that comes to mind. And yet when I think of that first trip the chief memory is of Ilse and the sense of romance returns refulgently.
The last train arrived at Dover Western Docks in 1994. The listed station building remains on Admiralty Pier but the lines are long gone. Trains to Dover now deliver you to Dover Priory station, which sounds an acceptably historic alternative. Don’t get your hopes up.
In March 2020 it was hard to be sure whether they were knocking down Dover Priory station or renovating it. Perhaps they plan a future diametrically opposed to the fate of Western Docks – the rails will stay but the station will disappear. Either way, any romance or sense of history attached to this element of your visit will depend entirely on how you feel about your companion.
One final announcement from Platform 1. In March 2020 the UK, as elsewhere, was trying to keep Covid-19, the coronavirus, under control. The official advice was for us to wash our hands, long and often, with soap and hot water. The Gents at Dover Priory had neither soap nor hot water. This comment is not aimed at the station management; I mention it to illustrate a common British inability to match ideals with the daily reality experienced by most of the citizenry.
If Dover were a golf course, you’d splash out on a buggy. The flatlands of the town centre don’t require it, and here you will save further money by finding the Transport Museum and the Roman Painted House closed through the winter and Dover Museum is free. But up the hill to the west are the Western Heights and associated redoubts, plus the Templar Church. Up another hill to the east is Dover Castle. Even the football ground, at Crabble, is up a slope that would be regarded in most towns as challenging.
From the railway station, the hill closest takes you up to the Western Heights. The fortifications here are from the Napoleonic Wars originally. “The exterior and moat can be viewed daily during any reasonable daylight hours,” says English Heritage. As for the rest, then, you’d have to be lucky about the date of your visit.
It may nonetheless be worth trekking up there. For one thing, it will warm you up for the walk to the castle later. For another, it gives you fine views across the town, harbour and, indeed, the English Channel. Dover Castle is at a similar altitude on the other side of the town but unfortunately the photo opportunity is compromised from some angles by a pair of masts rising out of the landscape beyond.
Alternatively, if you turn left out of the station you’re into the town centre very quickly. Here you will find Dover Museum.
The Dover Museum has galleries on three storeys, one of which was closed when I was there, for an exhibition to be set up. No matter; the remainder was excellent. They soften you up with attractive displays of Dover through the ages, including an especially effective room devoted to the town’s military history. This included a sequence of seven or eight chronological models and, suspended from the ceiling, a V1 flying bomb. Not as obvious but worth equal attention is a portrait of Elizabeth I painted in about 1598 and displayed in Dover Town Hall during her reign.
And then we come to the pièce de résistance, the Bronze Age boat which merits its own gallery. This is fairly dark. If you have reactolite spectacles you may need to give them a few minutes to calm down.
The boat is apparently the “oldest sea-going vessel known”. It may be 3,500yrs-old. Laid out behind perspex in the middle of the room, it was apparently built of hollowed-out trunks strapped together. At intervals along the length of the base are what look strangely like the wheel-arches of a small car. At either end there are obviously bits missing, but most of it is astonishingly complete. Around the sides of the gallery, related exhibits and explanations complement the vessel perfectly.
From there, it is no great distance to Dover Castle. But Castle Street, encouragingly flat for the first hundred yards or so, soon takes a turn for the worse. Experienced travellers will think nostalgically of European cities like Ljubljana and Salzburg, where castles are served by funiculars. Press on. It’s worth it, even at £20.90 a pop.
You could probably spend most of a day at Dover Castle. It covers an enormous area and has several set-piece attractions from various eras. The castle itself includes a keep with rooms presented as period halls, kitchens, bedrooms and so forth, and with access to the roof with wonderful views. Around the keep’s courtyard is a museum devoted to the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment and The Queen’s Regiment and these help to maintain a sense of chronology. And that’s not easy, partly because the eras rub shoulders with each other on a large scale – a Roman lighthouse alongside a Saxon church – and in the general feel of the place, with WW2 artillery pieces in one direction, a trebuchet and cannon in another. Some of the more prosaic buildings are equally intriguing, from barracks to holiday accommodation.
The Naafi Restaurant attached to the castle was closed for refurbishment. English Heritage broke that lamentable news in a peculiarly jolly-hockeysticks fashion. “We’re excited to announce that major work has begun to improve our catering facilities.” So I looked for lunch down the hill and wandered at random into the White Horse on St James St. It was an inspired choice.
When a pub is busy and you have a deadline – 3pm in my case – it helps for the staff to warn you that you might wait 40mins for food. But when they realised I was a party of one (no-one Ilse on this visit) they accommodated me and fed me promptly and well.
The pub itself is extraordinary. All over the walls, ceiling and doors are notes left as in a Visitor’s Book but in this case by Channel swimmers. A typically matter-of-fact entry, on the back of the main door, reads: “Cedric Bird, Jersey, E-F 13/9/08 11hrs 46mins For Charlie & Hannah”. Some include an inspirational message: “Life dream is now a reality. Chase your dream!” Many immortalise the support crew. One or two are illustrated, especially with flags. And there is humour: “For Lil and George, It Was Only One Length! Rebecca Simmons, First Guern! 19-9-09 11-4.3”
London Road is down-at-heel, enlivened by some notable architecture. The shabbiness increases with distance from the centre. Or, to be more generous, the grandeur fades. The Royal Victoria Hospital and its annex are still pretty grand. But Kings Hall, described by the estate agent trying hard to drum up interest as “an impressive and attractive theatre hall”, is startling. Certainly, very few English towns are too grand for a bit of Romanesque frontage and a pair of Doric columns, but painted yellow, white and sage green? A little further along is Jasper House, built I believe in 1954 as a Working Men’s Club. Is this very late Art Deco or early retro?
I realised too late that I had been walking parallel to the River Dour, and that it might have been possible to walk alongside it rather than beside a busy road. On the other hand its name doesn’t inspire visions of sylvan tranquillity. In the long run, it supplies the adjective that my memory will attach to the fixture at Crabble that afternoon.
‘Confident’ is the word for a football club that prints the its name in type no bigger than 8½pt on the front of its match-day programme, relying instead on the initials COYW as a masthead. Come on you whites… and with cliffs that colour, what else would Dover Athletic play in?
Dover Athletic 0 Yeovil Town 1
Crabble Stadium, 7 March 2020