The Tower and The Glory
PUBLISHED: 18:01 17 September 2009 | UPDATED: 16:14 20 February 2013
Dover is on track to becoming one of the most significant centres in the south east, and it's all down to a medieval King of Spin and momentous proposals that will change the face of the town forever...
Dover is on track to becoming one of the most significant centres in the south east, and it's all down to a medieval King of Spin and momentous proposals that will change the face of the town forever
The opening this summer of a new and stunning visitor attraction at Dover Castle was sufficient to draw crowds in their thousands to marvel at a suite of spectacular rooms inside the Great Tower, dressed to evoke all the splendour and atmosphere of a royal visit in the late 12th century.
What many visitors would not realise, however, is that the £2.45m funding for the re-presentation of the Great Tower is part of a much wider programme of investment at the Castle, funded by English Heritage and by the Government through Sea Change, the funding programme from CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment).
Sea Change was set up to help drive cultural and creative regeneration and economic growth in British seaside towns by funding inspiring, creative and innovative projects. So far, it has awarded more than £10m to three resorts - Dover being one of them.
Sea Change is all about 'connecting cultures', connecting the jewel in Dover's crown, the Castle, to a regenerated Esplanade so that visitors to the Castle can't help but be aware of the attractions of the town, users of the port can be easily transported to the Castle - and residents can take real pride in the place they call home.
It also means connecting a diverse, complex community through culture and the arts, as well as connecting existing cultural activities and businesses together.
Dover today is fractured by its transport infrastructure, traffic and topography. Dover of the future, however, could resemble cities like Barcelona, with cable cars whizzing overhead linking the town from Castle to Esplanade - and offering a brand new perspective on the White Cliffs.
Feasibility studies are also proceeding on creating a landbridge which would truly make Dover a walkable, connected town where commerce, retail, leisure, the natural and historical environment become linked, rather than disparate elements.
And one of the most exciting connections is literally on the horizon: on 13 December, the UK's first high-speed rail service will be introduced by Southeastern, connecting Dover with a wide range of opportunities.
The new service, which will also see the upgrading of Dover Priory station, means that passengers from Dover will be able to reach London in just over an hour (currently it takes nearly two), making it a town where you can not only now easily commute from, but a manageable 'day out' for visitors from the capital.
Tim Ingleton is evangelical about the opportunities that lie ahead. "We're on the cusp of a transformational opportunity that quite simply will not come around again," he says.
The changes, he explains, are being driven by three 'ingredients', the first being £400m proposal to build a new terminal at Western Docks to cope with the projected increase in traffic, which could lead to the biggest changes in the port's 400-year history.
The second strand is the arrival of the high-speed railway and service this December, which Tim describes as being "transformational" for Dover.
"The train service is carrying a finite number of people between 6.30 and 9.30am and of course where the operator needs to grow the market is in the 'inter-peak' market, so when a destination like Dover suddenly becomes connected to the capital and is a manageable day out, it's much more attractive," he adds.
The third hinges on employment and demographics. "Because of our position we are a great importer of labour and we currently find there is a two third inbound and one third outbound traffic flow: people coming in to use the jobs connected to the port, but also people going out to other centres because of the lack of facilities currently within the town," says Tim.
"That coupled with a growing proportion of elderly residents plus a falling birth and school rate, and a falling employment rate, suggested to us that we needed to take fairly dramatic steps to arrest that position."
Dover, he explains, is one of the few locations in the UK with four major designations behind it - a regional hub, an international gateway, a growth point and it's part of the Sea Change programme.
"What we are trying to do is to look at the way the town is operating currently and how it will operate in the future, overcoming many of the 'disconnects' in terms of the nature of the use and how they sit and interact with one another. We've got to a point where the the topography and geography of Dover brings big challenges in how people move about and how they connect - and of course Dover's function as our largest port comes into play, with such a large volume of trucks moving through the town and disconnecting parts of it.
"We know we're getting around 14 million people going past the bottom of the town, so a land bridge is crucial. If we can overcome the disconnect caused by the trunk road and the 10,000 trucks a day with a pedestrian bridge that links one to the other, it's a seamless move."
Tim says a key issue is the contribution the Castle is making, together with the Cliffs, as part of the heritage of Dover; by connecting the Castle to the waterfront by cable car, every visitor becomes a potential visitor to the town centre.
"When Henry II built the Castle here, he built it with a very clear message in mind in terms of its prominence and dominance, but its very position has now become one of its biggest challenges. It is a fantastic feature, but we need to ensure that the people who use it can and do use the town to derive maximum benefit," he warns.
"Rather than being seen as a peripheral location, the improvements to communication - including the road links - are vital for the UK economy, the regional offer and the offer within Kent. Beyond that, we are also the gateway to the UK and it's much more exciting now for people to come into Dover.
"In times of adversity come opportunity and what gives us great comfort is the levels of interest we're seeing in Dover from major regeneration players that, five years ago, were just not there. We need to de-risk as much as we can and work to take that forward."
Where better to start your day out in Dover than at the Castle? I visited early one sunny morning, just days after the grand re-opening of the Great Tower, to speak to two of the key players and to get a unique view of the new 'jewel in the crown' before the visitors started streaming in.
I ask Tracey Wahdan, visitor operations director for English Heritage in the south east, why English Heritage decided to focus its attention, and money, on Dover Castle and in particular the Great Tower.
She explains that English Heritage invests in its biggest and most popular attractions in order for that income
to fund the other 400, often smaller, properties it looks after - and Dover, as the second largest and busiest property after Stonehenge, was definitely ripe for investment.
"When the Government announced its Sea Change fund, we got together with Kent County Council, Dover District Council and CABE and I set up a business case about what we could do and what the return would be," she tells me.
"Our plans included a feasibility study for the cable car, the refurbishment of the Esplanade and the refurbishment of the Blériot Memorial, which is on our site, to tie in with the 100th anniversary of the cross-Channel flight." (see Kent Life July).
English Heritage's part was investing in the Castle, and in particular the Keep, where the Henry VIII attraction previously in place had become quite tired, visitor numbers had plateaued at 300,000 and the Castle wasn't really fulfilling its potential.
"The secret wartime tunnels are a very popular part of the Castle for visitors, but they get absolutely inundated and have capacity issues, with up to 3,000 people a day, so we wanted to do some work at the Great Tower to take the pressure off and to get more people through," says Tracey.
Research discovered, however, that the Tower was used for something completely different than English Heritage had originally thought. Fresh examination of Henry II's accounts revealed that he built the Great Tower for PR reasons rather than for defence: as a magnificent palace so that all foreign pilgrims on their way to the popular shrine of Thomas Becket (murdered by followers of the King in 1170) would be greeted with an unequivocal symbol of his own wealth and power before they
Henry's bid to assert his power suggests a spending frenzy of Elton John proportions as the medieval monarch attempted to re-assert his power. "Nobody in the world has ever done a 12th-century palace before - we're the first to do anything like this on this scale," smiles Tracey.
"People always think medieval times were drab and boring, but they had stunning colours, which we have recreated, and all the pieces have been done in the 12th-century style by specialist craftspeople."
So what does Tracey make of the finished result? "I think it is absolutely stunning, to me it seems modern, jazzy and fun, not at all 'twee'. A lot of people, including David Starkey, said we were very brave to do this because we could be criticised for recreating - but because it's been done so well and we have the research to back it up, it has exceeded our expectations.
"We've had to hire extra fields for parking and extra mini buses already - numbers and income are 100 per cent up compared to this time last year and we signed up 600 new English Heritage members over the Great Tower opening weekend."
So what aspect does Tracey like best? "My favourite bit is Thomas Becket's chapel, it's got beautiful stained glass and embroidered cushions and you get a real sense of where he would have sat. It's used by the garrison who used to be based here and for the Becket Service on 29 December.
"The kitchens are very popular, too, we've never had real fires for hundreds of years, so we light those every morning to create the right ambience," she says.
Paul Pattison's involvement with The Great Tower project dates back two years before the August 2009 opening. "We knew we wanted to have a big attraction here at Dover and we went though a process of trying to decide what to do," he says.
"The solution was that we had this amazing building at the top of the hill that is probably the most significant thing about the whole Castle in its medieval period. So we thought, what more significant thing to do that to show it in all its medieval glory when it was first built?"
The research and plan period was inevitably extensive: 800 years ago, references were nowhere near as good as they would be for an equivalent study of the Tudors, for example, but the conclusion was that there was sufficient evidence to come up with a plausible dressing out of the whole Keep.
"We had arrived at an interpretation of the building, what it was built for and what most of the rooms were likely to have been used for in that period, so that gave us a green light.
"But although we have fairly good evidence from manuscripts and from literature about life in the Tower and what things looked like, we don't have any depictions of whole rooms."
Paul worked closely with his colleague Stephen Brindle to work out what was going to be in each room, convened a project team and started to look at costs, the time scale, who they would involve and what further research needed to be commissioned.
"Some of the pieces of furniture you see are based on pieces that actually survive, but there are precious few of these, about half a dozen pieces of 12th-century furniture in England and the continent," he tells me.
"Nothing is coloured now, it's all worn away, and although we had a few key pieces, such as a big armoire and a number of turned chairs, we had to decide how to place and colour them."
Research revealed that, far from the drab place we believe medieval England to be, it was actually a riot of colour - so the gorgeous blues, reds, greens and gold of the painted oak furniture, the King's throne and the rich drapes that greet the visitor to the Great Tower today are based on historical fact.
"Most pigments would have been naturally occurring minerals that were simply ground up in an oil medium - so the subtlety of colour and the shades we are used to today simply wasn't around," explains Paul.
"The blues are from lapis lazuli, which is why they are so vivid, and most of the fabrics were made of wool or linen or silk imported from southern Spain and Sicily."
Other more exotic materials highly prized in the period and recreated here are Eurasian squirrel, found in the Baltic region and much admired for its winter coat of dark blue grey on the back and pure white on the belly. Very hard to get hold of, it became associated with wealth, high status and royalty, so if you had a Vair mantle, you were exceedingly well off and would want to display it.
The need to combine thorough research with a bit of theatre meant employing a theatre designer was a necessity and Kit Surrey from Exeter played a major part in coming up with the designs for the sets based on the historians' research. His wife Meg is the artist responsible for the painted elements of all the wall hangings.
As Paul says: "We can't pretend that in a period so remote we can do an actual reconstruction. That's why it's a set, and that's why someone else would come along and probably do it slightly differently."
And instead of the exhibition being a static display, Pepper's Ghosts (light projections of moving figures), costumed re-enactors and audio-visual presentation add atmosphere and make visitors feel part of the whole experience. It's history, and it's fun!