The first sight many people see of the UK, or England in particular, are the White Cliffs of Dover. These are the chalk cliffs on the English side of the Strait of Dover, (in French Pas de Calais), and is the narrowest part of the English Channel at some 21 miles (34 km). At this distance it is possible on a clear day to see the coast of the other country, and at night see the lights over the other side, even as one local Dover person told me, the car lights as they travel along the French coast roads.
So, the first sight as people catching the ferry plying the Channel are the brilliant white chalk of the cliffs, and certainly on the many returning flights to the UK, as I look down to catch a glimpse of home, the white cliffs stand out above anything else on a cloudless day.
Atop the cliffs of Dover has been a significant position for man since before the Roman’s invaded, as a lookout position to repel invaders, place for navigation, a place for communication.
In the 1180’s, the then King of England and provinces of France, (King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou), Henry II, built a castle on top of the cliffs at Dover, and over the next 800 years, the buildings and grounds have been adapted to the changing needs and demands.
On my first visit to Dover Castle, I caught the high speed train (130 mph, 210 kph), from London, and arriving at Dover Priory train station it was a short walk, but very steep climb to The Castle. (Listen to my hypnotic The Castle CD).
My first impression was, “this is not a real castle, it is not in ruins“, it is pristine unlike many other British castle I have visited. Despite the bombardment in the Second World War, it is said that Hitler had stated that the castle should not be attacked as he wanted it as a base for himself, the buildings where like they had just been completed.
So Henry II built his castle to impressed his many foreign guests, as was said, the castle was built as a bed and breakfast, an overnight hotel, as well as a garrison, and as people crossed from France, the elegance and richness would show what a powerful King he was.
Inside the battlement walls, the buildings are well maintained, it was still a military garrison until it was handed over to the Ministry of Works in 1963, and then onto English Heritage who now run the castle. But, it is not only the buildings above ground, there are extensive secret tunnels cut into the chalk, which housed up-to 2,000 persons in WWII, including a hospital, now mostly open to the public, exhibiting the history they have played over the years. The sights, sounds and smells are recreated to give a great understanding of what went on there.
In the Great Tower, there awaited another shock for me.
English Heritage have laid out displays, showing what it would/may have looked like in the days of Henry II. On level one, the guest bedroom, level two the Kings bedroom, throne room, and a small chapel attributed to Thomas Becket, who had been murdered by said agents of Henry II. Henry denied any involvement in the murder, and it is said this small chapel, still in use once a year, was Henry’s penance to St. Thomas Becket.
The shock for me was the quality of the furniture, the vibrant colours of the paint and cloth. It looked too modern.
As with all the guides situated throughout the castle grounds, eager to engage and full of knowledge, I was able to enquire as to the authenticity of the exhibits, surely they could not be true, as all the movies (mostly American) I had seen of those times, I thought that everything would be dark and grey. The guide had found his ideal visitor, for he was able to give me all his acquired knowledge, the fact that the woodworkers had the skills to produce such stunning work, that they had the ingredients to produce dyes of such striking colours for paints, murals and cloths.
Wow, I was shocked, as were the other visitors I spoke to as we toured the castle. Perhaps the British were and are a colourful lot after all, with OK some French influence.