Travel

White cliffs of Dover, medieval castles and a town called Sandwich

Dover Castle has been a royal residence for various kings and queens, including Henry II and Queen Elizabeth 1 - it's believed to have been constructed by William the Conqueror.

Step back in time to the medieval British town of Sandwich, which sadly looks nothing like a sandwich but everything like a biscuit tin lid come to life. Learn about the window tax, seismic instability, and the art of marital banter during earthquakes.

By Mark Dapin

If you’ve ever wondered what the White Cliffs of Dover look like... well, the clue is in the name. The White Cliffs are limestone chalk crags whose ancient complexion lends them a faintly uncanny air, as if they might have been created by wizardry rather than, er, millions of years of impacted planktonic green algae.

The white cliffs of Dover face continental Europe across the narrowest part of the English Channel

Dover itself is a gritty seafaring town with a wonderfully preserved and commanding castle. The sheer Englishness of it all nearly breaks my heart.

In the grounds of the largely Norman-era Dover Castle stand a Roman lighthouse and a Saxon church – that’s the English history buffs’ trifecta.

Writer Mark Dapin went on a history buff trifecta when he visited Dover Castle, a medieval trust and the nearby town of Sandwich. Note: This is a digitally altered image. Mark is not that large as to fill the whole doorway.

The castle itself is one of the finest in Britain, crowning the cliffs on Castle Hill as a monument to the reign of Henry II, who is famous for leading his army against his wife.

The castle’s keep has been tastefully fitted out with medieval-style paintings, drapes and tapestries. One dressed-stone wall displays a map of the known world (spoiler: don’t bother looking for Australia). In the King’s Hall, would-be ruthless despots can selfie themselves on reproduction thrones.

The white cliffs are made of chalk - a soft, white, finely grained limestone made of the remains of coccoliths, which are tiny planktonic green algae that once floated in the sea. When coccoliths died, their minute bodies sank to the bottom of the ocean to form layers of chalk that took millions of years to form cliffs.

I spend the night at the marvellous Best Western Premier Dover Marina Hotel and Spa, which has both a fish and chip shop and a restaurant by Marco Pierre White, the chef who made Gordon Ramsay cry

As a journalist who nearly made Ramsay cry myself, I feel kinship with White – who also cooks up a mean fish and chips.

Marco Pierre White's restaurant in Dover

A few stops up the railway line from Dover sits the lovely medieval town of Sandwich.

If you have ever wondered what Sandwich looks like, well… it looks nothing like a sandwich.

It is more like those pictures of England that used to decorate the lids of biscuit tins, with unbroken rows of 17th-century jettied cottages with lintels, gables and bow windows. 

Buildings around historic Sandwich display medieval construction methods

Occasional windows have been filled in, a legacy of the “window tax” introduced by William III in 1696, under which half a dozen windows might attract more tax than five, so householders often bricked up their sixth window. (The expression “daylight robbery” apparently stems from citizens’ outrage that the government was robbing people of their daylight with the window tax.)

My guide to Sandwich, John Hennessy, lives in a heritage-protected house in a street where armed townsfolk turned back French raiders in 1457. Owners of historic homes are responsible for repairing their own buildings, which can be an issue as the area is seismically unstable.

The most recent small earthquake trembled the town in 2015.

“It was about two o’clock in the morning,” says Hennessy. “The whole place started shaking. I very amusingly said to my missus, ‘Did the earth move for you, Susie?’ and she said, ‘No.’”
He shrugs.

“It was just the usual marital conversation after about 40 years.”

Timber framed houses and narrow winding streets characterise the town of Sandwich (which has more to it than sliced bread)

Sandwich was England’s second most important port after London, until the Wantsum Channel silted up in the 16th century, leaving the town stranded about three kilometres inland. Sandwich’s isolation helped preserve its gorgeous architecture, but doomed many businesses.

There used to be about 50 pubs in town, now there are only 11. Most streets include a former pub that has now become a pub-shaped residence, and many of the remaining pubs are gastropubs.

“They’re not what I’d call pubs,” says Hennessy. “When I was a boy, you went to drink and stand at the bar with your mates.” These days, he says, the bars serve food – and he makes the idea sound as distasteful as a cemetery selling dolls.

There is a town wall with two magnificent remaining gates, and some wonderful medieval parish churches. The central tower of St Peter’s Church offers the best views of the area, since there does not seem to be a single local building that is higher than three storeys.

 Inside St Mary’s Church, the diamond-shaped hatchments hanging high on the walls are peculiar to Kent and neighbouring Essex. When a rich person died, they would have their coat of arms painted on a black board, which was placed outside the main entrance to the house, to show others that the house was in mourning,

There is not much pavement in Sandwich and only one crossing, as the streets were built for oxen pulling carts. Even today, an oxcart would not look out of place. Near a stately 14th-century stone gateway, I notice a man dressed in buckled leather shoes, a pair of hose, a woollen overtunic and a hood, like a ghost.

“Who’s that?” I ask Hennessy.

“I don’t see anyone,” he says.

Finally, he admits the mysterious figure is probably a volunteer at the Sandwich Medieval Trust.

Hennessy sometimes gives the impression that he would rather be living in medieval times. And Sandwich does that to you – it makes you feel as though life might be somehow more liveable without heating, refrigeration, air-conditioning or running water, just as long as you had a sword and a shield, a flagon of mead, a chainmail vest and a fetching pair of greaves.

Medieval dress ups are a thing in this part of the world. Even in digitally altered images like this one.

Some locals take that idea quite literally.

At the end of my tour, I track down the phantom to the Sandwich Medieval Centre, where he reveals himself as Matt the Belgian.

He and his fellow volunteers dress up to practice medieval crafts.

“I do look kind of weird getting out of my car,” he admits.

During the week, Matt works for a big corporate selling medical devices but, come the weekend, he is a medieval blacksmith. Other volunteers operate a woodblock printing press, a forge and a baker’s oven. Archery is a common hobby.

Bob Martin, an art teacher who works the Gutenberg-style press, is the only person I meet in Sandwich who is actually eating a sandwich.

While it seems desperately unlikely that any one person “invented” the sandwich, John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, at least managed to put his name to it.

As for me, I stay and eat at the Bell Hotel, a Shepherd Neame pub overlooking the River Stour, where I enjoy an English steak and chips with watercress and pickled onions.

Because a man cannot live on sandwiches alone.

Not even in Sandwich.

Steak is so much better than a sandwich in Sandwich.

Citro travel tip:

Once part of the Royal Cinque Ports during the French raids, the Sandwich Medieval Trust displays medieval crafts, cookery, and war strategy. This town is quieter than nearby Dover and also hosts walking history tours with guides from the Sandwich History Society.

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