Culturissima has recently been commissioned to write and research a series of cultural and historical tours for English Heritage and one of their partners. It’s been a source of great joy to investigate parts of England that we haven’t travelled to in recent years – particularly the south-east.
The English Channel and the south-east coast of England have always played a pivotal role in the defence of our Great Britain. Dover Castle, site of a Roman pharos that dates back to the 1st century AD, was long known as “the key to England”, and both Napoleon and Hitler earmarked these southern shores for sea-borne invasion. And, of course, where they failed, William the Conqueror succeeded – the itinerary that we have devised for English Heritage will begin at the very spot where Harold met his end in 1066.
The Western Heights, rising to the west of Dover and surrounded by chalk meadows, form the largest Napoleonic defences ever constructed in Britain. The most substantial fortifications were erected in the early years of the 19th century as a bulwark against French attack, and the redoubt later sheltered a squad of commandos during World War II.
The castles at Rye, Bodiam, Walmer and Deal each have their own tale to tell, but it is Dover Castle, fortified by Henry II, that takes pride of place. It was from the citadel’s secret tunnels, originally hewn to counter the threat of Napoleonic France, that Churchill and vice-admiral Ramsay masterminded the evacuation from Dunkirk. By the end of World War II, this labyrinthine complex had been developed into a veritable underground city, housing not just a military headquarters but also a hospital and substantial barracks.