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Dover: Still the Gateway to the Continent

By James Graham 
Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: November 01, 2007 
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The Channel Tunnel opened for business in the spring of 1994. Dreamed of for centuries, the massive three-bore tunnel connects England to France from Folkestone across the Pas de Calais. At 31 miles, the Channel Tunnel is the longest undersea tunnel in the world. Nearly 10 million rail passengers and 3.5 million vehicles a year travel to and from mainland Europe under, instead of over, the water. And what of Dover, England's historic ferry port just up the Kent coast? Has it become a quiet backwater?

It is easy to see that reports of Dover's demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Port of Dover is flourishing as leisure-hungry Britons, determined to enjoy what Europe has to offer, load their cars for a Continental adventure. Almost unnoticed, it has also become one of northern Europe's largest cruise ports as increasing numbers of people take to the waves for leisure.

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To stand on the battlements of Dover Castle, looking out over the town to the busiest shipping lane in the world, is not to see a vision of a town out of time. The small city still remains the closest port to mainland Europe. For centuries there was little reason to visit Dover other than to take a ship for the Continent. Travel to wider parts of the world was undertaken from larger, more important docks elsewhere on the south coast or from the London Docks.

Fifteen years ago the timescale of Dover's role as a gateway to the mainland was revealed when, in September 1992, archaeologists from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, working alongside contractors on a new road between Dover and Folkestone, came upon the remains of a large, wooden prehistoric Bronze Age boat that was around 3,000 years old. In fact, the Dover Bronze Age boat (now in the Dover Museum) is regarded as one of the most important prehistoric discoveries of the last century. It strongly suggests cross-Channel trade going back more than 3,000 years.

Dover's close proximity to the Continent has always ensured its role as an important seaport. The River Dour provided both a haven for shipping at its mouth and a constant supply of fresh water for its inhabitants. Town and port have been defended by a succession of Roman, medieval and postmedieval fortifications, the most impressive of which remains the great Norman castle. Its massive World War II fortifications intrigue visitors as well.

Tudor and Stuart kings and queens took a particular interest in Dover. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I recognized the value of the harbor. Expensive repairs had to be undertaken to overcome the problems created by shifting shingle. The coast of Kent, in common with much of the southern English coast, is scoured clear of sand and left with small stones, or shingle, by the prevailing currents of the English Channel, which deposit sand all along the beaches of the Pas de Calais on the other side of the Channel.

For a considerable time under the Tudors, a journey from Dover was not in fact the international voyage it is today. For two centuries, England held Calais as a possession. From its conquest in 1347 to its relinquishment on January 7, 1558, the city had representatives in Parliament.

During the reign of Charles I, Dover declared for Parliament in the Civil War, but found it politically expedient to enthusiastically welcome the return of his son Charles II to England when he landed on Dover beach on May 25, 1660. Less exalted travelers to and from England continued to use Dover in growing numbers as the quickest method across to the mainland.

As security worries, congestion and the sheer inconvenience of modern airline travel make would-be fliers think again, figures released by the Port of Dover show Continent-bound passengers are returning to ferry travel at Dover. For the second year running, car and passenger traffic using Dover's ferries to Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk has risen to nearly 14 million, while vehicle crossings increased 3.6 percent to 2.6 million. The Port of Dover offers up to 57 daily departures with leading operators P&O Ferries, SeaFrance, Norfolkline and SpeedFerries.

Maritime industry consultant David Cheslin has witnessed the changes in Dover's role over the last decades as the town has come to terms with the tunnel and the low-cost airlines.

"I would say Dover's passenger traffic is now largely UK holiday-makers touring the Continent in their own cars," says Cheslin. "As well as holiday-makers, you have coach operators whose passengers include pensioners, schoolchildren and Eastern Europeans. UK pensioners like to get onto a coach near where they live and know it will bring them back to their doorsteps two weeks later. Not for them the lugging of suitcases through airports such as Stansted where the gates always seem to be miles away. As well as the oldies, many British schoolchildren still travel by coach when they travel on holiday to the near-continent."

The great disparity in alcohol and cigarette duties between Britain and France, coupled with the ease of access from the national motorway network offered by the M20 from London, allows day-trippers to take ferries to visit French hypermarkets and acquire carloads of inexpensive drink to bring into the UK. In the 1980s the practice acquired the nickname "booze cruises," a title still used to describe these day-trips.

Eastern European workers and students looking for the cheapest form of transport home have also become a major element of traffic through the port to Calais. Official figures from London's Victoria coach station show that there are 60 to 70 arrivals each week from Eastern Europe, with an equal number returning through the port carrying homebound passengers. Cheslin points out that the tunnel railway service has, in practice, only really taken traffic from the London-Paris-Brussels air services.

In Dover itself, public discussions are being held on how to bring town and port closer together for the benefit of both parties. The South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) has met with partner agencies, including Dover District Council, Dover Harbor Board, English Partnerships, Kent County Council and Dover Pride to discuss development and regeneration proposals to secure the future of the town. Under discussion has been a vision that connects Dover's "string of pearls"—its landmark tourist sites, history and the port terminals. A spectacular tower may be built off the York Street traffic roundabout as a landmark, visitors' center, lookout point and headquarters of Port Control. Councilor Paul Watkins, leader of Dover District Council, has told the press that the project to construct a landmark tower is a first for the town and reflects the air of confidence moving through Dover. These are long-term projects that will move Dover up the economic ladder and make a difference to local people.

Dover is today the second busiest cruise port in the UK, welcoming more than 170,000 cruise passengers a year. This position has been cemented by the news that the world's largest cruise line has chosen Dover as a base for its first Northern Europe cruise program, which will commence in July 2008. Carnival Cruise Lines' new 113,300-ton Carnival Splendor will operate a program of six cruises following its delivery voyage to Dover in summer 2008. On arrival it will become the largest cruise ship to berth at the port.

Carnival plans to offer a series of 12-day cruises to Northern Europe in 2008 and would like to do the same in 2009 and beyond, according to Terry Thornton, vice president of marketing planning for the line. Dover was selected because of its convenience for both North American and European passengers and the easy access of good air service into London.


This article by James Graham was originally published in the January 2008 issue of British Heritage Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to British Heritage magazine today!



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