Dover: the gateway to the British Isles

Dover for me personally I have a lot of connections with and I think so many other British people who have itchy feet for travel. You see the town is located in the south-eastern corner of the county of Kent in the United Kingdom and has the largest passenger ferry terminal in the country. With ferries going to France around twenty minutes away, a lot of people use them to break up their car journeys, have a rest on them and have a meal (there is also the Channel Tunnel which does the car-trains from nearby Folkestone to Calais). I can’t tell you how many times I have been on this ferry but at one point when I first started traveling, maybe three times a month. However Dover has much more than a ferry terminal, it has history, beautiful walks and not a bad place to eat, drink and have a hotel stay. The town is also on the high-speed train services to London St Pancras International station (also Stratford International in East London) and journey times are around one hour. There is no excuse for missing out on a day trip to Dover, so check out my guide on what to do and see at the ‘Gateway to the British Isles’.

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White Cliffs of Dover

I start off with history and one of the landmarks overlooking Dover is the castle which can be seen from the ferries, the seafront, anywhere in the town centre, it can be seen for miles. The castle has stood here since the 1180s on the orders of King Henry II and for me personally being a local to the island, the castle probably had the most strategic importance to defend the country from armies coming in from Europe. Standing on a hill, lookouts can see right across the sea and sometimes on a clear day, the white cliffs of France (that is what I call them) which are located south of Calais. Over the years the castle has been reshaped and rebuilt plus the added bonus of tunnels being built underneath them. The tunnels played a more important battle when it came to World War II and became the operations room for the army, navy and air force. They were famously used in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 where 800 vessels retrieved Allied Forces who were cut off from the Nazi Germans and brought them back to the island. Shortly afterwards the Battle of Britain came along where the English Channel became a shooting gallery for aircraft which saw the Royal Air Force take on the Nazi’s Luftwaffe. Inside the tunnels also hosts a small hospital but one of my favourites here as well as taking in all the history is the view from the tunnel looking out to sea. Tours can be booked when paying at the entrance of the castle.

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Dover Castle
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Olga and view out to see from the tunnels underneath the castle

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On the grounds of the castle is an Anglo-Saxon church which was built when the site was part of a Saxon fortified settlement. This is probably the finest and largest Saxon building which can be found in the county of Kent. More details can be found here.

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The Anglo-Saxon church inside the castle grounds

Dover has a lot of Roman history also in the area. Known as Dubris by the invading army (the port was known as Portus Dubris), the first landing of the Roman’s wasn’t here at Dover. This was because when Julius Caesar and his army were sailing across the Channel, they were approaching Dover and saw hundreds of local British folk waiting to defend the island. Julius thought the locals would throw javelins from the top of the White Cliffs nearby and kill many people. Julius then made the order to go several miles along the coastline to dock at an open undefended beach. The Roman’s were in. Left in the town today are the ruins of two Roman lighthouses, one of them on a hill overlooking the town from the west, the other is located in the grounds of the castle (which the castle is located on a hill on the eastern side of town). They were both built in the 1st century, soon after the invasion. This was done so the Romans could guide their ships into the harbour below.

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The Roman Lighthouse inside the castle grounds

Once the Romans had a lot of their fleet in the waters around the island, Dover’s main role was to protect Gaul (modern day France) to Britain routes across the channel and support the Roman Army coming from Rome. The port was not there to defend the islands from invasion. Because of this, the Romans made their main harbour for the Channel at Boulogne (known as Gesoriacum back then), so if any other invading army wanted the British Isles, the Romans would attack them in Gaul and not in the Channel or on the island.  

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White Cliffs of Dover

Away from war and tragic history, Dover has one of the best known natural landmarks on the island. They are known as the White Cliffs of Dover and it would be the first sight invading armies, tourists, boat owners sailing across the channel would see. They can be seen from Calais and other places along the Cote d’Opale in Northern France. The cliffs can be found on both sides of the harbour but a lot of people tend to go to the ones east of the town. This is because there is a good hiking trail on top of the cliffs (which are 350 feet – 110 meters high and in some parts if visitors are brave enough, can take a walkway then a ladder down to the bottom of them to touch the sea, get blown about by the offshore wind and see some of the chalk and flint lying about. When I do walks from Dover, I usually go all the way to St Margaret’s Bay (a few miles east of the town) and on the way see the Victorian-era built lighthouse known as South Foreland. The lighthouse was built here as the nearby Goodwin Sands (which is a ten mile – 16km sandbank) was the main cause of around 2,000 ships and other vessels being wrecked. This is because the sea between Dover and France is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The lighthouse was closed down in the 1980s but still stands here proudly overlooking the sea. 

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South Foreland Lighthouse
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St Margaret’s Bay

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Another historical site to see on top of the White Cliffs and not too far away from the castle is an area of laid ‘granite setts’ (rectangular stones used on roads and pathways), is the outline of an aircraft known as the Blériot Memorial. This is where Louis Blériot landed his aircraft in the first flight across the channel from Calais to Dover in the early hours of 25th July 1909. Amazingly Louis never visited Dover to find a suitable landing spot but he did land the aircraft near the castle. The flight took him thirty six minutes and thirty seconds.    

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Photo of Louis Blériot and aircraft when he landed near Dover. Photo: Wikipedia
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A poster describing Louis Blériot’s flight in France

On the outskirts of town towards Folkestone is a small village of Capel-le-Ferne. Here is the Battle of Britain monument (as mentioned earlier in this post) where aircraft shooting down other aircraft over the channel, is a memorial of one of the biggest air battles in history took place over the English Channel. I find it moving and is a place worth checking out if visitors are into Second World War History. The views from here overlooking the sea are truly amazing and a peaceful place to remember those who lost their lives. 

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Battle of Britain Memorial

Dover is also on one of the famous hiking trails of Europe, the Via Francigena which goes from Canterbury Cathedral to the Vatican City. The English leg of the route is only twenty miles long and I was fortunate to do this back in 2019 as I started my journey (which I am doing in stages). Dipping my feet in the sea was the last part of this leg of the journey and the next part is taking a boat over to France and the start the French leg of the route there.

Read more of my journey and about this part of the route on my blog post here.

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When I reached the beach at Dover after stage 01 of the Via Francigena

There you go guys, this is why I recommend a day trip to Dover. A lot of coastal towns on this part of the island have history but Dover has a lot of them. I really do find the Roman and World War aspects of the town really interesting but for me, it’s about the views overlooking the sea and taking a ferry across to visit our brothers in nearby France. That is why for me, Dover, will be known as the Gateway to the British Isles.

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