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A weekend adventure in Dover, Kent

7 April 2022

Pack your bags and head for a short break in Dover in the county of Kent, often referred to as the Garden of England. This very under-estimated destination offers a wonderful variety of diverse attractions that will keep you enthralled for at least three days.

Dover in Kent consists of four very different areas. Its historic town centre, a long seafront and harbour on its coastline and a castle on the cliffs above the town and the famous White Cliffs of Dover. 

Let the adventure begin!

Let’s start at the Dover Museum, which is housed in the former Market Hall, built in 1846.

Both the museum and the Visitor Information Centre in the entrance will provide visitors with a taste of the treasures that will unfold should they choose to follow the walk through the history of Dover, pinpointed with information boards.

A stroll through the history galleries in the museum will set the scene for the sites you are about to visit. Make sure you see the Bronze Age Boat, at around three thousand years old it is the oldest known sea going boat in the world. A whole gallery is dedicated to this unique exhibit and the Bronze Age.

Historic Dover Town

Outside again, the museum is a good place to start the self-guided tour of the town centre. Some highlights include the very impressive Town Hall, also known as the Maison Dieu.

Dating back to the beginning of the thirteenth century it was built to accommodate pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury and, later, to care for wounded and destitute soldiers. It is huge and has been used for several different purposes over the centuries including a military store, a council chamber, a centre of local justice and a concert hall. The four beautifully renovated galleries can be hired for private functions and guided tours are available for visitors. An exciting project will see the complete renovation of this Grade 1 listed building and from 2024 it will be permanently open to the public for the first time since it was built.

Nearby, Saint Edmund’s Chapel is probably the smallest chapel in England still used on a regular basis.  This thirteenth century chapel was probably intended to be used as a chapel of rest but due to the suppression of churches in the mid-sixteenth century it has been used for a variety of purposes including a blacksmith’s forge.  It was saved from demolition and restored by a private group in 1965. In 1968 it was re-consecrated for worship. 

Close to the town centre is the very special Roman painted house built around 200 AD and discovered and excavated during the 1970s. It is believed it was either part of a large mansion or an official hotel for travellers crossing the English Channel. Fragments of painted mural decorate the walls of the five rooms and the house has an elaborate underfloor heating system.  The museum is staffed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers.

Not particularly interested in historic buildings? No problem, make your way to the town’s splendid sea front and harbour. Maybe calling in at the historic White Horse Inn at the end of Castle Hill Road on your way. Built in 1365 it was originally the home of the Verger of the Norman church of Saint James. The ruins of the church are next door, a casualty of both World Wars. The Inn was once a morgue for bodies recovered from the sea and inquests were heard here. Even if you don’t take a break here just pop into the entrance to see the names of those who have swum the channel scribbled on the walls and ceiling.

The Sea Front and Harbour of Dover

Enjoy a stroll along Dover’s splendid promenade. Known as the Esplanade, it stretches from the towering white cliffs at one end of the town to the large port at the other. It features the New Marina Pier which offers a great walk out to sea with good views of the working docks on one side and the White Cliffs of Dover on the other. 

The Esplanade was conceived by specialist architects Tonkin Liu and opened in 2010. Three sculptural artworks, Lifting Wave, Resting Wave and Lighting Wave represent different aspects of Dover and its relationship to the sea. These blend in with some of the most attractive buildings in the town, including the elegant Wellington Crescent. Interspersed amongst the buildings and sculptures along the sea front are several interesting memorials from the two World Wars.

Keeping a watch over the town and its sea front, as it has down since William the Conqueror built the first fortifications here during the eleventh century is the amazing Dover Castle – an ideal venue to visit on your second day. The castle and grounds are so extensive it is easy to while away a day here and maybe take a picnic to enjoy on the extensive lawns carpeting the cliff top. An English Heritage site there is plenty of parking for visitors here.

Dover Castle

Perched atop Castle Hill the chalk of this large mound was used to create massive earthworks, ditches and mounds – all accessible to the public. Walls with towers encircle the castle itself and medieval tunnels run beneath it. The castle buildings and its defences were adapted to meet the changing demands of modern weapons and warfare including both World Wars. Within its walls is one of only three Roman lighthouses that have survived from the time of the Roman Empire. This lighthouse is also the most complete Roman building still standing in England. 

Of particular interest is the Medieval Tower that includes the Throne Room, a private chapel and great views from the top. Tableaux have been established in some of the rooms that reflect the periods when the castle was in use. Guided tours are available.

There is so much to see on this huge site that a whole day may not be enough. There are three places to eat on this site - the NAAFI where the soldiers used to eat, the Great Tower Café and the Tunnels Tea Room. A visit to the castle is truly a great day out for all ages.

The White Cliffs of Dover

What a thrill it is to walk on the top of the White Cliffs of Dover and something to savour on your last day in Dover. The White Cliffs are not only a landmark of Dover but also an icon of England. They are the first sight of our country on a crossing from France.

The cliffs are accessible by following a path that leads up to them from the sea front or a short journey by road. They are owned and managed by the National Trust who provide parking and other facilities. Visitors can learn more about these iconic cliffs in the Visitor Centre before following one of the marked trails (of varying lengths) to enjoy the undulating downs and fabulous views from the cliff tops.

You may even meet some of the resident grass trimmers, a herd of Exmoor ponies!

A two-mile walk along the cliff top will bring you to the South Foreland Lighthouse. This Victorian lighthouse once warned ships of the shifting Goodwin Sands in the English Channel and guided them through the Strait of Dover.

There has been a lighthouse here since the fourteenth century when it was just a lantern hanging in a cave cut into the cliff. South Foreland Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1988 and is now open to visitors who can learn about its interesting history and its involvement in both World Wars.

Refreshments are available at the charming Mrs Knott’s Tearoom nearby – it offers a good old-fashioned English tea. A lovely way to round off your staycation – surrounded by one of the most famous icons not just of Dover but England as well.