History in chalk

The outer walls of Dover Castle.

Dover Castle is no ordinary fortress. This popular English attraction is built upon layers of history. . . and lots of chalk.

The inner Keep was built in the time of Henry II as a kind of royal way station, a place to entertain guests from the continent. The castle also defended a vital chunk of landfall:  Dover is the closest  stepping stone to Europe. On a clear day, you can see the coast of France. Enemies of the crown in every century knew this all too well. (German officers stood on the shores of France in 1940 to see the coast of Great Britain, merely 20 miles across the Channel.)

The Keep is joined by other fascinating structures within the walls, like a Norman church seated beside a Roman lighthouse. But local history goes further even underground. Levels of tunnels were home to soldiers in the time of Napoleon. In World War II, the subterranean base was ground zero for the Dunkirk evacuations. A basement level was even fitted for use during the Cold War. These military fortifications stand atop (and partially within) the White Cliffs of Dover.

The cliffs contain chalk with flint, quartz, and even the fossilized sediments of long-dead sea life. This is all a system of interlocking history:  Dover was of great strategic importance during ages of European conflict. There are other fortresses like these in other parts of the world with similar value. They resisted the weathering of time and contain rich histories. They guarded harbors and rivers, sheltered a population,  and were manned by generations of soldiers.

The Norman Church and Roman lighthouse. The Channel is visible beyond.

Dover in the early part of this century is a very active seaport with cruise liners and ferries. The castle and subterranean sections are a spectacular tourist attraction. My mother and I got lost on our way back from the museum to the train station. It was just as well:  we were glad enough to be saturated by England’s rich and multi-layered history.

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