All Quiet on the Western Heights ?
When someone mentions the Kent coastal town of Dover, what immediately comes to mind?
Dover Castle, the English Heritage historic property that proudly overlooks the town? The iconic White Cliffs of Dover as immortalised in song? Dover sole, maybe, the popular restaurant fish dish? Or perhaps, the Dover to Calais ferry? More recently, it might be the town as a centre for migrants from the continent and further afield.
In truth, Dover is all these things. And more.
What probably isn’t mentioned too often is the Western Heights – an undulating long hilly steep grass bank of land set back from the sea on the road to Folkestone. From the top you can look out to the Marina in front and gaze across the town down to the east and take in the Castle and the start of the White Cliffs walk on to St Margaret’s. Of course, you can also watch the ferries come and go and stare out to Calais just 22 miles away. So everything you might associate with Dover is visible in one long sweeping gorgeous vista. The advantage is that while you’re admiring the view, you’re also standing on an area rich in history and natural beauty of its very own.
So, if you like exploring over bastions, barracks and forts; not to mention going down deep into grand shafts this is the place for you. You can wander across lost citadels and walk along vast earthworks. It’s the perfect place to re-charge your batteries – more of which later.
We visited Western Heights recently to celebrate my birthday. Let’s just say it was a special one. The halfway mark to getting a telegram from the Queen. Passing the roundabout turnoff to the Western Heights we parked down in the Marina area and headed to the Waterfront café owned by the Best Western chain. The front boasts a whole block of grand Victorian edifices and the Waterloo Mansions are particularly impressive with individual well-kept gardens adorned with spring flowers and ornamental statues.
Part of the Marina buildings have been sympathetically converted into the De Bradelei Warf shopping centre – a row of ‘out of town’ designer discount concessions. Magda may have been swayed by the shops but my head was turned by the view behind of the imposing Western Heights and what looked like battle lines being drawn into the folds of the hill. I couldn’t wait to climb the hill and see for myself the fortifications and citadels built over two centuries; first started during the War of American Independence and then developed to combat the threat of a Napoleonic invasion and later updated over both World Wars.
Eventually, Magdalena’s curiosity was spent – although fortunately not on any actual purchases. So we drove up the old Military Road and parked in the English Heritage car park at the start of the walk on the western edge of the Heights. Even here, the views were impressive and we were lucky that on a clear sunny day everything seemed so clear and in focus down to the last detail of the red smudge on the beaks of the swirling seagulls above. Truly, we could see for miles and miles and miles.
The Heights are well served by a large number of maps and guides which set out various trails and paths. Additionally, there are a series of information boards to mark the spot of various barracks, hospital and kitchen built to support a sizeable garrison of soldiers whose job it was to defend the fortifications from foreign attack and ensure that the port never fell into enemy hands. The fortifications were manned until 1961.
Back to those batteries – re-charged or otherwise! St Martin’s Battery has gun turrets, cannon positions and pillboxes with grassy tops for camouflage and wavy brickwork to confuse enemy aircraft. The ‘lost’ citadels, sunken into the hillside are every bit as imposing in their own way as those of Dover Castle itself.
All in all, the scale of the battle works is immense, the various fortifications imposing and the views spectacular. It doesn’t require too much imagination to picture soldiers of any era from Napoleonic, Victorian to WW2 parading along the front or re-charging the guns.
But it’s not all about the smoke of the gunpowder or the rattle of anti-aircraft guns. The social history of the life of the soldiers is well documented too. The discipline, particularly in the early days was harsh and relentless. Ordinary privates existed on meagre diet of porridge and coffee, meat and potatoes with suet pudding thrown in, sometimes, for good measure. There appears to have been a good measure of potatoes but the meat was often of dubious quality. The unvarying diet must have complemented all too well the repetitive drills and exercises designed to maintain battle readiness.
More information on the history of the Western Heights can be found via English Heritage who maintain the site http://www.english-eritage.org.uk/visit/places/western-heights-dover/history/
The Western Heights Preservation Society also conducts guided tours in the summer and can be found at www.doverwesternheights.org . Some sites such as the Drop Redoubt and the Grand Shaft are also open to the public on particular days or an admission charge. There are also battle and camp re-enactment weekends.
As the late afternoon wintry sun was setting, we took one last look at the commanding view from the Heights and slowly made our way back down to the Marina.
Earlier, Magda had spotted the Hythe Bar seafood restaurant which occupies a lovely spot on the esplanade overlooking the Harbour. http://www.hythebay.co.uk/dover/dover.html
Well, as we were in Dover, we weren’t about to order burgers! The restaurant is light and airy with a modern, contemporary feel about the décor and a relaxed ambiance. We enjoyed seafood chowder and a ‘special’ of piquant prawns. For mains, obligatory fish and chips was crisp and plentiful with a taste which the soldiers on the Heights could only have dreamed of. Madga’s Pan Fried Sea Bass was tender and we both just about managed desserts.
Magda was not disappointed with the Dark Chocolate Marquise which was served with Morello Cherries and Black Cherry Sorbet. My more conventional choice of Bread and Butter Pudding with Crème Anglaise was soft and definitely creamy. The staff were attentive and we found time to have a pleasant chat about plans for Dover’s future development.
We’ve already made plans to come back to the Western Heights in the summer. So once you’ve gone down the Great Shaft with its three grand spiral staircases look up the Hythe Bar seafood restaurant for a pleasant way to finish the day.
Maybe, next time we’ll have the Dover Sole!