Sunday, July 5, 2009

I’m Looking Over the White Cliffs of Dover…

DSC03871 DSC03857 DSC03859 DSC03861 Somehow it seemed to be my turn again to choose a location for the day. I was hoping for a beach as it has been so HOT here so we left our cottage and headed for the south coast to St. Mary’s Bay. It didn’t take long to get there and I managed to navigate my way there myself (no, really mum, that’s fine, I can do it  - you look out for cows or stoats or whatever).

If you have ever had the misfortune to find yourself in an English Seaside town, you will know immediately what I mean when I use the words ‘awful’, ‘cheesy’, ‘tacky’ and ‘appealing’ all in the same sentence. I have childhood memories of spending the day ‘beside the sea side’ in an Enid Blyton paradise with people like Mummy and Joan and David, bathing costumes, iced lollies and going for a ‘bathe’ etc etc. I also remember seaside carnivals that were straight out of a nightmare with leering attendants with terrible teeth (OK, well actually everyone in England has terrible teeth), cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, where you got to ride on some terrible merry-go-round for way too much money and then go and eat greasy fish and chips after. Hey it sounds like the Oak Bay Tea Party!

In any case, we arrived at St. Mary’s Bay in the middle of a hot sunny and very windy day. After parking the car, we walked up a small hill where I could see a few tacky tourist stalls. I wasn’t expecting much. So imagine my surprise when we crested the hill to see a HUGE golden sand beach stretching out as far as we could see in either direction. This thing was WAY bigger than Chesterman beach at Tofino. The kids took one look at each other, and then bolted off toward the water, which was a murky looking affair but appealing none the less. Unfortunately, the wind was really strong and managed to also blow any warmth away with it. So we hung around for a few minutes then got back in the car and headed off to Dover. Of course, the seaside route took us through a number of ultra-tacky resorts full of fish and chip shops, cheesy rides and myriad blow up/ride on sea creatures, buckets, spades, and beach towels all blowing like crazy in the near-gale that was now upon us. Ignoring Zoe’s urgent requests to stop I zipped through all these towns and onto the motorway which is a much faster way of travelling and less enticing if you are a kid.

Dover is an extremely impressive town surrounded as it is by high chalk cliffs that really are spectacular. I wish I could say the same for the town itself which is a bad mash up of old and new. However, considering the major damage sustained by the town during WW2 it has survived remarkably well. Something like 2200 shells fell on the Dover between 1940 and 1944, all fired by the Germans from their long-range guns built onto the cliffs at Calais, across the English Channel. 1000 buildings were destroyed and many more severely damaged.

The town is also a major seaport for ferries leaving for and arriving from mainland Europe so at any given point the harbour area is full of ferries and other ships coming and going. The city is dominated by the castle which rises high above everything. This was our destination and I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear that Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon made a personal visit to the castle during their reign. We arrived later in the day which was ideal as there was hardly anyone there. Specifically, there were virtually no groups of marauding youth all gulping huge bottles of pop and bags of chips, swearing and generally doing everything in their power to ruin the event for everyone else. I believe this occurrence of youth run wild is also known as a ‘school group’. There is also usually a haggard looking teacher who, having tried unsuccessfully to maintain some semblance of control, has now given up and can be found in the shop drinking all the samples of blackberry wine, or in the corner smoking a ‘fag’ (as they call them here).

Instead there was a very nice gentleman in the shop (who looked a bit like the love child of Eric Idle and Margaret Thatcher but I digress) who set us up with a tour of the Secret Wartime Tunnels, which don't appear to be much of a secret anymore.The tour took us through the network of tunnels that were carved out of the chalk cliffs below Dover Castle during WW2. Some of the tunnels date back even earlier to the Napoleonic Wars (Late 1700’s). The main purpose of the tunnels was to house WW2 soldiers and to administrate the war. There was also a hospital there during WW2 and it remains there to this day, completely intact. It was like stepping back in time. They also try to recreate the wartime situation by adding voiceovers of soldiers going about their day (‘I say, Jones, be a sport and put the kettle on would you?), surgeons operating (‘Scalpel! Scalpel. Scissors! Scissors'), and Admirals admiring or whatever it is they do (‘What the Devil are those Germans up to now! What ho! Get some more men over there and be quick about it!’).  It was quite effective, especially when a bomb came screaming in and the lights went out. Zoe did not like that part which she demonstrated by climbing directly onto my head and screaming herself in a manner that threatened to bring down the tunnels themselves. Jacob on the other hand thought it was ‘really cool’ and ‘neat’. Mental note to self: teach children some new vocabulary. My mum loved it, especially the operating theatre.

We emerged into blinding sunlight on to a terrace where Winston Churchill himself used to stand and watch the dogfights in the air between the RAF (Royal Air Force) and the Germans. According to our guide the British lost around 500 planes a month during the Battle of Britain and the Germans lost 600 so there was a lot of action in the air over Dover. The image of all those planes sitting on the ocean floor is a powerful one. Apparently most of them are still there.

After the tunnels we walked the castle ramparts then left in search of dinner which we found at a pub in the village of Bearsted near the Castle which is my new favourite village. The food was once again fantastic (oh RATHER!) and we slept well that night.

1 comment:

  1. Ann Mac Donald (Canada)July 23, 2011 at 8:46 AM

    lovely. absolutely lovely. thank you for sharing this story. :)