Britain has many historic towns, but few display their history so clearly as Dover. Often dubbed “The Gateway” of Britain, Dover sits on the far southeast coast of England, her iconic white cliffs stretching far along the coast, welcoming ferries from Europe. At the narrowest point of the Dover Strait, the town sits only 20.7 miles from Calais, and on a clear day one can easily see the French port from Dover beach. This location, which has given Dover a unique role in British history, may soon make the town uniquely vulnerable to the effects of a no-deal Brexit.
Evidence suggests humans have occupied Dover for well over three thousand years. Major road construction in 1992 revealed a nearly intact Bronze Age boat, which could be the oldest intact seagoing vessel in the world, now housed in the extensive Dover Museum. A thousand years later, the Romans considered Dover a crucial strategic location, constructing multiple forts and other dwellings, including the well-preserved Dover Roman Painted House, the site of the most expansive Roman frescoes north of the Alps. In 1066, the town was sacked by William the Conqueror, and by the time of Henry II, work had begun on Dover Castle, now the largest surviving castle in England. Multiple churches were built and restored, including St. Mary in Castro, which is over a thousand years old and is still used for services today.
Over the medieval period the town solidified its crucial role, becoming a key port and access route to Europe and beyond, and playing host to a dizzying range of monarchs, noblemen, and foreign leaders. The town became a critical line of defense against a potential Napoleonic invasion in the early nineteenth century and served the same crucial role in the wars of the twentieth century. The first bombs to fall on England fell close to Dover Castle in 1914, and the town’s strategic position made it a key focus of Hitler’s “Operation Sea Lion,” the planned invasion of Britain in World War II. While the invasion was never attempted, the East Coast was shelled so heavily during the war that the area surrounding Dover earned the grisly nickname “Hellfire Corner.” Multiple covert command centers and fortifications were built into the white cliffs, and during the Cold War bunkers were developed for use by senior regional figures in case of a nuclear strike.
Dover’s location remains important, now for commerce rather than war. Dover Port continued to grow throughout the twentieth century, and is now one of the busiest passenger ports in the world. Last year, the port handled nearly 5 million vehicles and well over 11 million passengers. Its trade has also continued to grow, and now an astonishing 17 percent of the United Kingdom’s trade goes through the Port of Dover. It remains the “Lock and Key” of Britain. But away from the busy port, much of the town itself stands in a sorry state. On the once-grand high street, shopfronts now stand bleak and deserted. Some properties have been empty for nearly fifteen years. On the seafront, the walls and windows of houses are scarred by the black fumes poured out by hundreds of ferries. Housing prices were once some of the lowest in the UK, and though they have lately risen somewhat, they’re still far below those of even relatively close areas, such as Deal. In 2017, an informal poll of Britons cruelly dubbed Dover the worst place to live in the United Kingdom.