Dover - One of England’s best-kept secrets
Just an hour’s train ride from Central London through bucolic landscapes will bring you to one of England’s best-kept secrets, an area that has become a hub celebrating the rich history, art, and culture of the South-East.
Dover is rehabbing its image, one of my lovely tour guides jokes, as we watch trouts swim upstream the River Dour, flowers blooming at its banks. No longer a begrudging pit stop on the way to France, Dover has become the destination.
Looking for the perfect occasion to mosey down to the seaside this month? The Kent Pilgrims’ Festival is the only excuse you need: a modern-day pilgrimage festival packed with organised walks around the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, art performances, and fun crafting events designed to introduce visitors to Kent’s rich heritage and stunning landscapes.
Ahead of the week-long event, I had the pleasure of being invited by festival representatives to partake in some activities. I began by touring one of Dover’s foremost heritage sites, The Maison Dieu, and later took a walk around town with The Creative Pilgrims, complete with an introductory lesson in sketching from established artist Alexandra Le Rossignol.
I’m met at Maison Dieu by Martin Crowther, an enthusiastic and endlessly knowledgeable Engagement Officer. While exploring the Grade I Listed Building, which is undergoing renovations, Martin tells of the site’s coloured and fascinating history.
Founded by the Earl of Kent and Constable of Dover Castle, Hubert de Burgh, in 1203, Maison Dieu was originally built to provide short-term accommodation for pilgrims travelling to and from the continent to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
From pilgrim hostel to a hospital for the sick, after more than 300 years, this institution’s religious role came to an end thanks to Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, which famously declared him the Head of the Church of England in 1534. A decade later, Maison Dieu was transformed into a naval victualling yard with its own brewery and bakery, supplying the nation’s warships with hard biscuits and beer. It functioned as a victualing yard for another 300 years until a fire broke out and damaged much of the building.
It was later sold in the 183os to become Dover Town Hall and converted for use as a meeting hall, courtroom, and even a gaol. Today, ownership of the hall belongs to the Dover District Council, and while its role as a civic centre has largely ended, it continues to be a venue for community activities, concerts, weddings, performances and educational events.
Maison Dieu’s most impressive feature is undoubtedly its set of colourful, intricate stained glass windows located on the Stone Hall’s south wall. However, I also recommend looking for the original ceiling art of the Mayor’s Parlour further back from the building entrance. The latter was ornately designed in the 1880s by renowned Victorian architect and designer William Burges, and has since been restored to its original vibrance.
After the tour of Maison Dieu, Alexandra and writer and travel photographer Liz Garnett accompany me through Dover on a ‘slow pilgrimage’. As they explain, a slow pilgrimage is not about covering vast distances at speed, but rather engaging with the environment and taking the time to observe the landscapes you pass through.
Following the river for a stretch, then through the richly-foliaged Pencester Gardens, we stroll through the town to the pebble-laden Dover beach. Standing at the promenade allows visitors a great view of the iconic White Cliffs that inspired the writings of James Bond novelist Ian Fleming and the outlines of the Medieval Dover Castle.
After admiring the surroundings, we get to work finding pebbles with naturally formed holes through them – also known as Hag stones, adder stones, or holy stones. A few minutes and a handful of rocks later, our quest is complete, and we sit down by the water under the surprisingly warm English sun. There, we set about marking-making and sketching the found stones with charcoal, chalk, and watercolours. The activity offered a grounding and relaxing experience, and Alex was full of helpful suggestions regarding technique and experimentation. Experienced artists and complete drawing novices alike are sure to gain something from the task.
On the way back from the seaside, we make a quick stop at the Dover Museum and Bronze Age Boat Gallery. Liz and Alex are keen to show me the room that hosts the world’s oldest known seagoing boat, though we also pass a section on the history of smugglers and a stuffed polar bear. The impressive prehistoric wooden ship was discovered in 1992 by construction workers building the A20 road link between Folkestone and Dover, and the vessel is estimated to be some 3,500 years old.
Just one of the many treasures to be found in Dover, it seems.
The Kent Pilgrims’ Festival ran from the 21st to the 25th of September.
Check out The Bees Tale Book that launched on September 16th at Maison Dieu: We joined artist, author and Creative Pilgrim Alex Le Rossignol for the launch of The Bees Tale, a creative exploration of the pilgrim route from Dover to Canterbury, in words, illustrations and verse. The book includes information about fascinating pilgrim sites and stories from the Dover district, including the Maison Dieu, as well as historic villages en route and Canterbury and its cathedral.
Creative Pilgrims also ran an exhibition as part of the festival, titled The Way of St Martin: The exhibition reflected on the new pilgrimage route from Dover to Canterbury, taking in St Martin Le Grand in Dover and St Martin’s in Canterbury, as well as reflecting on the cult of Thomas Becket with stops to St Edmund’s chapel, Barfrestone Church, St Thomas’ for the relic of Thomas Becket, and the place of his martyrdom at Canterbury Cathedral. Nature and landscape play an important role in this journey which follows the River Dour, North Downs, Nailbourne, and goes through nature reserves.
On Wednesday 21st, Thursday 22nd and Friday 23rd, Alex ran a taster workshop in iconography, looking at local saints: During this course, students used egg tempera and pigment together with gold leaf.
For more information visit HERE
Words by Laura Potier