Dover is a seaside town that Charles Dickens knew well, a fast train ride away (around one hour) from London – Kings Cross St. Pancras station. Dover is also a short train ride to Canterbury Cathedral and ferry trip to France.
You can ‘do’ Dover in one day, but take two days – stay overnight locally, or in Deal, Canterbury or Folkestone – and give yourself hours to explore Dover Castle’s secret wartime tunnels and ancient rooms.
Dover is an alternative town, to get to France, landing in Calais rather than Paris. The distance is so short, some people swim across. Charles Dickens used to sail across!
Charles Dickens stayed in – ‘Charming rooms’
Ship Hotel, Dover,
Thirtieth April, 1856.
MY DEAR COLLINS,– Wills brought me your letter this morning, and I am very much interested in knowing what o’clock it is by the Watch with the brass tail to it. You know I am not in the habit of making professions, but I have so strong an interest in you and so true a regard for you that nothing can come amiss in the way of information as to your well-doing.
How I wish you were well now! For here I am in two of the most charming rooms (a third, a bedroom you could have occupied, close by), overlooking the sea in the gayest way.
Ever yours, C. D.
Charles Dickens was a great fan of Paris, as Dover was Britain’s most popular gateway to France, he spent a lot of time in residence and even overcame his writer’s block, walking along the stunning white cliffs, to nearby Folkestone. His letters include those to fellow author Wilkie Collins, his companion in Dover.
Lord Warden Hotel, Dover,
Friday Evening, Twenty-fourth May, 1861.
MY DEAR WILKIE, I am delighted to receive so good an account of last night, and have no doubt that it was a thorough success. Now it is over, I may honestly say that I am glad you were (by your friendship) forced into the Innings, for there is no doubt that it is of immense importance to a public man in our way to have his wits at his tongue’s end.
Dover to Folkestone Walk
You can take the Dickens walk if you are feeling energetic. He describes it in the same letter here.
Of course I am dull and penitent here, but it is very beautiful. I can work well, and I walked, by the cliffs, to Folkestone and back to-day, when it was so exquisitely beautiful that, though I was alone, I could not keep silence on the subject. In the fourteen miles I doubt if I met twelve people.
House at Camden Crescent, Dover
A blue plaque erected by the Dover Society states:
“In 1852 CHARLES DICKENS and his family lodged nearby in Camden Crescent while he wrote parts of Bleak House. The author Wilkie Collins was a regular visitor.” Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White, stayed with Dickens at 10 Camden Crescent during the Summer of 1852. It was bombed during the war, but the beautiful little crescent, just near the water, remains – Dickens must have loved staying there.
Other associations Charles Dickens has with Dover include the address you can see in his letters, the Lord Warden Hotel (now Lord Warden House) and the Dickens Corner Cafe in the Market Square (where you can have your morning tea). The cafe has a wall plaque inscribed:
“Here, while searching for his aunt Betsy Trotwood, David Copperfield rested on the doorstep and ate the loaf he had just bought.”
Dover features in A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield.
A Tale of Two Cities starts with a mail coach journey to Dover. Dickens wrote: ‘The little narrow crooked town of Dover is itself away from the beach, and ran its head into the chalk cliffs, like a marine ostrich. The beach was a desert of heaps of sea and stones tumbling wildly about, and the sea did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction. It thundered at the town and thundered at the cliffs, and brought the coast down madly … A little fishing was done in the port and a quantity of strolling about by night, and looking seaward, particularly at those times when the tide made and was near flood…”
Dover was a nest for creative people in Victorian England. The artist Lambert Weston had two houses in Waterloo Crescent, one of which was managed by his housekeeper and let to visitors such as Dickens. By that time, Dickens would walk up to Pilots Meadow, taking his pen and he would work on the grass. Pilots Meadow is now allotments off Adrian Street but thanks to the National Trust you can still enjoy some amazing walks around the town. Just look for the signs.
Dickens was not the only famous writer to spend his holidays in Dover.
Lord Byron stayed at the Ship Hotel and Middlemarch novelist George Eliot spent several weeks in the town. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote ‘Dover Beach’ whilst honeymooning at the Lord Warden Hotel.
“The cliffs of England stand/ Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!”
Noel Coward and Ian Fleming also knew Dover well and both lived in the same house, at nearby St. Margarets Bay.
If you want the best view of The Ship, which Dickens knew so well (later rebuilt as the Lord Warden Hotel and now the Dover Headquarters of Sealink) walk up Snargate Street and across the Viaduct. If you visit Dover Castle (and it’s unmissable) then walk to the top to see Dickens’ Dover in all its old glory.
Dover Castle is well-known for its secret wartime tunnels and rooms, which are open today, with all the original equipment from the old hospital, as well as the hidden headquarters for Dunkirk.
This old photograph of Sir Winston Churchill, below, was taken in Dover, on the site which has since magically become a Starbucks cafe on the seafront for you to visit – and take in the views. If you’re a fan of the film Dunkirk, remember – it all happened here in Dover. Dover Castle, high above the town (within walking distance, if you are feeling energetic) captures the ancient England of the Magna Carta, The Domesday Book and Chaucer – but also contains emergency government facilities dating all the way from the nuclear scares of 1962. Give yourself hours to explore, if you can. (Photos: English Heritage).
Fast Facts About Dover
You’ll be travelling from London Kings Cross St. Pancras (also known just as London Kings Cross) to Dover Priority on the fast, sleek Southeastern train, in around one hour.
The best pub in Dover is the White Horse Inn on St. James Street, Castle Hill Road – just under Dover Castle and very close to the beach. It dates back to 1365 and it is where all successful English Channel swimmers sign the wall. This 1920’s photograph of the White Horse Inn is still pretty accurate – expect charming little rooms within. The menu is full of traditional fare and we can recommend the Shepherd’s Pie. If you are walking down from Dover Castle, this is a great place to have lunch afterwards.
Perhaps Dickens drank here too. We know one thing about him, though. He didn’t swim the Channel!