I was in Dover last week as the Shakespeare setting for King Lear, where I found a crumbling postwar seaside town with Roman history and lots of confusing nationalism (many asylum-seekers and migrants from Europe enter the UK here). It’s actually a pretty good fit for the apocalyptic play, if maybe not a first pick for an off-season holiday. When my B&B host picked me up from the station, she asked if I were headed to Calais or Canterbury for a day trip, as “There’s not a lot to Dover, Kerry.”
Like a music festival, Dover Castle gives you wristbands, not tickets, for admission, and pleasingly also like a festival when I walked in, there were tents set up with activities – face-painting, crafts, a tasting table of local ciders (!), beers (!!) and spirits (!!!), and ghost tours. Oh, because it’s half-term! A lot of parents and guardians were brightly tugging children around and looking anxiously at the low grey sky, and I scheduled a tour then made a straight line for the tasting table. I’m guessing it was aimed at helping those with small children take the edge off, but either way I made a dent in the sample shots of mead, ‘Turbulent Priest’ ale, butterscotch liqueur and toffee apple cider.
The ghost tour was pitched at kids (whoops) but was excellent fun for a grown-up too. I find kids’ events and theatre typically have a kind of playful collaboration with the audience that art for adults has just started getting into – if this exact tour were marketed for adults, it would be called a ‘site-specific immersive promenade production with historical and fantastical elements’ and Punchdrunk would be trying to charge £40 for it. As a kids’ event, it was free with admission and went every half-hour, and it was great.
Kids are also I think very happy to go along with stories they know are stories: as well as the actor leading the tour, there were extras paid to bang around, make us jump and scare us. Just by the Tunnel of Terror (great, right??), a door slammed open, an actor ran out and melodramatically exposited about witch trials, then cackled and banged away again.
“Can you imagine!” a dad said to his kid. “That’s his job, doing that all day.” He spotted a posed pirate skeleton inside. “Oh, look, Ben! OoooooOOOOoooo!” Ben laughed and hid his face in his dad’s shoulder. What I love about that is that there wasn’t any contradiction for either of them in joking about the actor’s schedule and then getting scared (or mock-scared) by the skeletal décor; you agree to participate in the fiction when you go on the tour, and you can’t puncture an illusion you’ve already consented to. It wasn’t just willing suspension of disbelief, it was active participation in disbelief, which I think is wonderful and something that grown-up theatre often doesn’t trust its audience to do.
Before leaving the castle I went back to the booze table for bottles of homemade mead and toffee cider, then headed off to walk along the coast to the famous White Cliffs.
White Cliffs of Dover
Annoyingly, it’s very difficult to get to the White Cliffs on foot – it involves half an hour dodging cars on a curvy two-lane road with no pavement. It’s frustrating that they cliffs are famous and advertised as a beautiful place for a Nature Walk but you can’t actually walk-walk there safely. I got the visitor centre an hour before it closed, and a guide pointed me to a twenty-minute walk with a good view and offered to call me a cab when I got back.
But have I fallen, or no?
From the dread summit of this chalky bourn.
Look up a height: The shrill-gorged lark so far
Cannot be seen or heard: do but look up.
Dover does feel like the edge of the world, though it’s historically one of the best connected parts of Britain: the gateway to the continent, you can see France across the Channel when it’s a clear day (it wasn’t and I couldn’t).
When I reached the promised good view, it was cold and getting dark, but I didn’t want to walk back right away, so I sat on a little grassy ledge, tried not to fall off the two-hundred-foot drop and watched the ferries going out to Calais, and coming back. It felt wild and old, even with the modern port so close that you can hear the boarding announcements floating up.
And I thought, what would Ye Olde Britons have done right now? And the answer came to me: drink mead! Scencte scír wered! Gaéð á wyrd swá hío scel! So I opened the bottle (English Heritage – THANK YOU for making them with a screw top) and drank a bit, and made sure to keep WELL AWAY from the cliff edge do not fear. After twenty minutes of moodily watching the water and feeling highly Ye Olde, I walked back to the visitor centre.
They were closing up and the nineteen-year-old behind the till looked a bit concerned to see me, but she did call me a cab and offered to let me stay inside while I waited; I thanked her and went into a browsing holding pattern at the bookshelf.
Around ten minutes later I heard a whispered conversation across the shop.
“What’s happening with the lady?”
“Just waiting for a cab. She walked up here.”
“Is she all right?”
They fell silent and I suddenly became aware that I had been enthusiastically, audibly cooing to myself over a guide to Wars of the Roses battlefields for at least a full minute.
The manager came up to me.
“I’m really terribly sorry, but we’re closing the shop and, ah, about to start checking inventory, and I’m so so sorry but I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask you to leave.”
So on Tuesday I became one of what I hope is a very small number of people who have been officially kicked out of a National Trust property.
“What did you get up to today?” my B&B host asked when I got back.
“Oh, er,” I said. “Not a lot, you know.”
“No,” she said, satisfied, “I thought not.”