Travel: When you hit Dover, head for the hills, not the ferry

A system of secret passageways and vaulted chambers left over from ancient wars awaits the doughty adventurer, discovers Jon Winter

ADVENTURE-SEEKERS stepping off the train at Dover tend to head in one direction: south, on the first courtesy bus to the Eastern Docks and on out across the English Channel. Well, who can blame them? At first glance, Britain's busiest port has little to offer the adventurous except a good choice of routes to somewhere else. Yet if you bother to look, in the hills just above the town, there is adventure to be had in the shape of Dover's forgotten fortress.

Don't be drawn to the town's spectacular medieval castle, flaunting itself from the high ground to the east of town. What you are looking for was not meant to be visible from sea-level. Hidden, not 400 yards from where you are standing, up on the hills to the west, is a sprawling complex of 19th-century fortifications sunk into the grassy slopes.

Originally put up in the 1780s to defend Britain against invasion from the Continent, the Western Heights defences were progressively reinforced during the following century as Anglo-French tension continued to ebb and flow across the Channel. When finished, they formed a fortified line a mile-and-a-half in length. Most of it has long since been abandoned, leaving plenty of deep overgrown ditches, dilapidated drawbridges, tunnels and chambers, and chalk footpaths to explore.

Before you begin your assault on the Western Heights - as they are known - call into Dover Museum in the Market Square. From here, simply head up Durham Hill opposite the White Cliffs Experience along York Street. You won't miss it: just follow the signs for the Western Heights Trail, Drop Redoubt and the Young Offenders Institution. After a few minutes, climbing quickly, Dover soon retreats to a sea of rooftops and the muffled shouts of children.

There is no set way to tackle these defences. On an information board at the top you will find a sign with a map of trails inviting you to explore. I set off around the perimeter following a thin line of chalk, worn through the grass by previous visitors. But it wasn't long before I was tempted to deviate off the waymarked paths, lured by the words "way in" chalked on to a rock or fencepost by the local kids who have made this their adventure playground.

In places, the Western Heights are like a lost world. Sections of the ditches are so overgrown that they encase you in a canopy of thicket. All you can see is the narrow path threading through the undergrowth, allowing glimpses of the ivy-covered brick and flint walls punctuated with narrow concrete window slits. It is shady and very quiet, except for when you disturb small animals and birds. There are dead-ends, hidden flights of steps, bolted doorways and even poisonous serpents. Then you suddenly arrive at a clearing and there is a hole chiselled into the wall. A way in.

It is at this point that you begin to see why this is an adventure. By definition, adventure is something that contains an element of danger. And to quote the disclaimer from the guide book by David Burridge: "... it is possible to get in here BUT this does not mean that you have the right to do so; it is not necessarily safe to do so; and don't blame me if anything goes wrong".

When I found myself at one such opening near the detached bastion, curiosity overcame reason and I squeezed feet-first through the child-size opening, dropping into the darkness. I stood still until my eyes had adjusted and the unnerving feeling of being somewhere I shouldn't be had subsided. Looking around this first room I could see the dangers were real enough. The floor was strewn with broken masonry and I could see the vaulted brick ceiling through gaping holes in the first floor.

Moving tentatively from room to room negotiating crumbling stairs and narrow, sloping passageways, it would be easy to fall foul of one of the counter-balanced drawbridges that form a second line of defence on the inside. But after disturbing a few birds it didn't take long to get spooked and feel the need for daylight.

Back outside, the perimeter trail leads you past the Young Offenders Institution until you reach the western fringe of the Heights, where the route becomes a little unclear. One path heads downhill towards the sea and then back along the southern side of the fort, but you don't see much of the ruins if you head this way.

The other choice follows the edge of the ditches, picking through a thatch of unforgiving hawthorn which is made all the worse by the adverse camber of the narrow trail. The reward for choosing the latter comes when you emerge on the lip of a 60ft drop overlooking the face of the Western Outwork - a row of elegant red and yellow brick arches wedged into the chalk cliffs.

Whichever route you take should lead to the gun emplacements at St Martin's Battery and to Drop Redoubt, the detached fortress back at the eastern end of the complex. These are the most visited parts of the fort and in recent years the local authorities have provided information boards and even started some restoration work, bricking up holes and clearing ditches.

Of course, restoration is no bad thing, but untangling the intrigue of the ditches and sealing any chance of entry does lessen scope for adventure. Then again, if they fall any further into neglect, the Western Heights will face their toughest battle yet: against nature.

FACT FILE

DOVER

GETTING THERE

By train: departures twice hourly from London Victoria to Dover Priory; adult cheap day return pounds 17.80.

By car: the most convenient town-centre car-park is on York Road; the closest to the defences is on North Military Road.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Guide to the Western Heights by David Burridge is available from the Dover Museum shop (pounds 2.95). A collection of material relating to the Heights and guided group tours of Drop Redoubt are available by appointment. The museum opens daily during the summer, 10am-6pm, adults pounds 1.60, children 80p (tel: 01304 201066).

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

Dover Castle has a network of wartime tunnels burrowed into the chalk cliffs. Unlike at the Western Heights, commentary, film and even smells are provided so that you can relive the Second World War in the anti- aircraft operations room, military surgery and communications station. A guided tour of the tunnels is included in the entrance fee: adults pounds 6.60, children pounds 3.30, family ticket pounds 16.50. Dover Castle is open daily in the summer, 10am-6pm (tel: 01304 201628).

News
FIFA President Sepp Blatter reacts during a news conference in Zurich June 1, 2011
news
News
people
Life and Style
food + drink
News
peopleKatie Hopkins criticises River Island's 'seize the day' bags for trying to normalise epilepsy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family
film'I survived it, but I’ll never be the same,' says Arash Amel
Life and Style
Retailers should make good any consumer goods problems that occur within two years
tech(and what to do if you receive it)
Life and Style
healthIf one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
Life and Style
tech
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Day In a Page

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith