Dover: The Key to England

I’ve been writing recently about a weekend I spent early this month traveling around the Kent coastline. In previous blogs I’ve described my visits to Whitstable, Broadstairs and Margate and today I’ll bring the series to an end at Dover, the harbour town that sits at the narrowest point in the English Channel, the point nearest to France, just 21 miles from Calais in Normandy.

It is, as probably everyone knows, situated next to the White Cliffs of Dover, those chalk cliffs so easily seen as the first image of England when you cross from France. Dover harbour has always been seen as England’s front door and it’s castle, the “key to England.” No wonder then that it has become such a symbol for England itself. The old name for England, Albion, comes from the word for White.

I went there on a late summer evening just as the light was fading but not before I could stand on top of those cliffs and see France on the horizon. If you look carefully at the photograph below you can just discern it as a distant landmass.

Standing there on the cliff edge, it was easy to imagine English folk over the centuries scanning their eyes and looking for signs of invasion. It is no surprise to learn that this place has often been the site of foreign hostilities, actual or dreamt. Standing there too, I couldn’t help feeling that it would be a long way down if I slipped.
It is the key to England but also the edge of England, a farewell point and, so often, a last sight before exile or emigration when sea journeys were often one way trips. 

Today, Dover is a happy point of departure and arrival with ferries constantly carrying holiday makers between the two countries and beyond. It is difficult just the same to watch those ships going out to sea without feeling sense of shared historical memory here.

I was not the only one drawn here to stand and stare fascinated by sea and ships and the stories that they tell.

Considering Dover has such a rich history and that it is still such an important place for the crossing between England and continental Europe, the harbour is surprisingly small, almost, dare I say it, dinky.

You can watch the ferries navigating in and out as if they were like those plastic boats that children play with in the bath. The town is not big either, limited in space between cliff and sea.

The “key to England” was never the town itself, that was often raided by potential invaders, the key is the grim-faced 12th Century castle sitting above the cliffs with a wide-angled view across the channel. For centuries it looked invulnerable enough to deter all comers only bowing to progress when it gave way to those brave British aviators who fought in the air against the last-would-be invaders in the Battle of Britain that darkened the skies over these parts in 1940.

So many associations come to mind when thinking about Dover. I was tempted to quote Matthew Arnold’s great poem Dover Beach, tempted too to play Vera Lynn singing about bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover but, for me, the most vivid literary images of Dover come from Shakespeare.

In 1605, William Shakespeare’s theatre company, The King’s Men, came to Dover, I like to think that Shakespeare was with them already with ideas about his great new tragedy, King Lear, fermenting in his brain.

The last acto of the play sees all the main characters converging on Dover. King Lear himself, now deposed and out of his mind, his daughter Cordelia coming from France with an army to save him and Lear’s loyal friend Gloucester now blinded and looking for suicide by jumping off these very same cliffs.

King Lear: Geoffrey Freshwater (Gloucester) and Charles Aitken (Edgar)
Dost thou know Dover?

Ay, master

There is a cliff whose
high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep
Bring me to the very brim of it,
And I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear
With something rich about me: from that place
I shall no leading need.

King Lear: Greg Hicks (King Lear)

So if Dover inspired nothing else, let’s be grateful to it for its significance in one of the very greatest works in World literature, the play that comes to its heart-breaking ending in ‘The British camp, Dover.’ Here is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production with Greg Hicks as King Lear in that final scene carrying his dead daughter Cordelia:

As I’ve been reporting, I’m getting into gear for the imminent publication (31st October 2013)  of my novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.
You can already pre-order the book from the publishers, Ward Wood Publishing:
…or from Book Depository:
…or from Amazon:

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