Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Intrepid slugs - Part 2

Another day we ventured to Woking, a small town about half-way between Guildford and Walton-on-Thames. We came for some squirrel watching. As we sat in our car, we saw a solitary squirrel searching for nuts in the park to our left. After a few minutes, the squirrel ran up a neighbouring tree, along to the very tip of the longest branch, and jumped across the road to another tree! He nearly didn't make it, and hung upside down for a few moments, claws clinging to a few small branches! The excitement! He then scrambled up a bigger branch and down the tree trunk, to a new selection of tasty nut treats.

The gap the squirrel jumped - close to 2 metres wide!

We also visited Dorking (great name, eh?) a few times, though the town didn't really grip us and the selection of cafes was grim. Here, except for London you don't get those classy coffee shop cafes that we have in New Zealand that are known for great coffee. They have two types of cafe here - the tea rooms that offers coffee, often with sticky melamine tables and also offering things like baked potatoes or bangers and mash for lunch, or the normal cafe - but we personally felt that the Baristas (coffee makers) weren't as well-trained as Kiwi ones, as the coffees are often over-extracted (bitter) or the milk burnt (you can usually tell this when your coffee is too hot to drink for a while). We really longed for a Trattorie/Crisp or Underground or Addington Coffee Co-op type cafe where the coffee is the main feature. (Luckily we discovered a few of those in London, with the Kiwi-owned Department of Coffee and Social Affairs winning the prize for best flat white and friendliest manager!)

Anyway, Dorking. Dorking has a church and churchyard with century-old gravestones fading into the grass. Sound like the sort of place you'd frequent if you were a squirrel? YES!

Aren't they just magical??

Another day, we went on a further squirrel-watching expedition, setting off from our historic manor accommodation in Wotton. Surprisingly, we only saw 2 or 3 squirrels off in the distance, but we did see lots of autumn scenery that reminded us of home.

The hotel we stayed at near Dorking was called Wotton House, and was once the home of 17th Century botanist, John Evelyn. It had seen better days, especially the garden, but some parts of the interior were very grand.

 Bar / restaurant

 Chandelier, next to stair wall of family portraits (from back when the venue was privately owned)

Room with curved walls and doors!

And that is all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Intrepid slugs - Part 1

It seems that many of you are getting the impression that we are gadding about the country, having great adventures every day of the week. 

All the places we have been to. (Places we have stayed overnight are in yellow, those underlined in red are merely places we graced with our presence for a short time.)

In the interest of fairness, I must correct you. Indeed, we have seen some wonderful places and sojourned across a significant portion of the English countryside, yet we have also spent much time holed up in hotel rooms searching for jobs or apartments or waiting for important phone calls. (We would have done the above in cafes, but the coffee here is so terrible we could not bring ourselves to pay for it. We have heard quite a few people here say that New Zealand is backwards, but in coffee, I think we lead everyone else!) 

We spent nine days staying in the areas below - the South East (Croydon) and South West (Guildford) on the outskirts of Greater London, and while we were there, we had only a few, more gentle, adventures.

Again, the areas we stayed in are in yellow, merely visited are in red. (For the pedants, yes Farnborough is bucking the trend but it's too much hassle to fix. Also, London is strictly north-east, but the arrow wouldn't curve. That will teach me for using MS Paint!)

We were mainly in the area as Adam was following up some job leads and, eventually, having some job interviews, but it was a nice part of the countryside to be 'stuck' in. 

Guildford is a nice place, with lots of trees and a homely feel to it. Because it's country town near to London, there are a lot of Londoners who buy houses in Guildford but commute to the Big City. As a result, house prices are phenomenal and the price of rental properties made our jaws hit the footpath. (At that stage, we hadn't seen central-London rent prices...).

The pretty, cobbled main street


and again, just in case you didn't see the first time...

One day we ventured to Walton-on-Thames, in pursuit of a Gourmet Burger Kitchen - the kiwi burger chain we found in Bristol (Hey! When your wife is one of the fussiest eaters in the world you just go where you know she will eat something and like it). We immediately felt at home, as the GBK was on this street: 

Choice as!

After eating our tasty lunch we drove around Walton-on-Thames to see if we could handle living there. We definitely could (but whether or not we could afford it was another matter.) Once you get this close to London, the little towns all run into each other, and soon we found ourselves in Shepperton.

Shepperton was lovely. Really, really lovely. I would rate it and Walton-on-Thames (as they were basically the same place) as my favourite spot east of Devon and Exeter. We arrived just in time to see a boat being let through the lock.

After staying to watch another boat go through, we wandered along the tow path and an adjoining riverside walk for a wee while. 

I don't know that you can really see from this badly exposed picture (below), but looking upriver from the lock really made me feel like I was in the Wind in the Willows, with Ratty's tow path on the right, and Badger's Wild Wood on the left. I looked at the Wood very hard, for quite some time, and felt that I really could see all those nasty stoats peering out. 

End of Part One.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Second Best Thing in Dover

Plagued by persistent rain, we trudged our way around Dover Castle and its grounds.

The site itself is an amazing history lesson - built on the site of an Iron Age fort, the area encompasses a Roman church and lighthouse, a Great Tower, built in the 12th century, military defences added during the Napoleonic Wars, and WW2 military batteries and tunnels. In winter,* the Castle is only open on Saturdays and Sundays, and while we arrived just after opening and left dead on closing time, we still didn't have enough time to fully explore the site. We both wanted to go back the next day, but at £16 per person (around 66 NZD for the two of us) it just wasn't an option! (Plus the weather forecast was for more rain, and we didn't fancy another day climbing around an exposed hilltop in the wind and rain)

* Most English tourist sites are either closed or open for restricted hours from - and including - November to March, so we shall have to be patient and wait to see many of the places on our list...

These first two pictures are taken from 'Dover Castle: Back to the 12th Century', by David Keys for The Independent.
The accompanying article is a really interesting read, about the work of historians and crafts-people that went into revamping Dover Castle.

Click on the long stream of text to read the article - it's worth it! ).


As you can see, the site is vast. In total, all we managed to see was the Great Tower, the Roman Pharos, the Secret Wartime Tunnels (excluding the Hospital) and the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment Museum. A day well spent, but we would have liked to see the medieval tunnels and towers (like this one, left).

Also, the fire alarms kept going off, and we had to evacuate the Museum a few times, which took a few valuable minutes away from our visit.
As we were leaving, we drove around the Officers' Barracks, built during the Napoleonic Wars, but they are not currently open to the public as they are being refurbished. 

Nice digs, lads! 
( )

The site also boasts an impressive array of military gun emplacements. Unfortunately we saw only three canons and the large gun below, as we ran out of time (plus the constant rain wasn't conducive to roaming around outdoors)

( )


The Great Tower is the most exciting part of Dover Castle - save the Secret Wartime Tunnels.

Built during the 12th Century, the Great Tower was designed as a plush pad for King Henry II's European guests. You see, Henry was in the bad books as his knights had killed Saint Thomas Becket, and in a great display of humility and contrition (pfft!) he walked barefoot to Canterbury Cathedral and allowed himself to be flogged by monks - and then built a Giant, Fancy Castle to house the distinguished guests coming from overseas to mourn at Becket's tomb.

Rather than a great show of humility, the castle was really a show of Henry's kingly authority and power, guarding the entrance to his realm. Inside, he decked it out in showy fabrics and colours, which English Heritage has now replicated.

The Great Tower has four floors, including one for servants and one as the King's Suite. One floor houses the Guest Room and Guest Hall, seen in the pictures left and below.

At first, I thought the furniture looked a little gaudy and garish, but we asked a guide and she said that it was authentic to the time. Interesting style! When I thought about it, the colours and use of wood made me think of a Court Jester, so I guess that makes sense.


An exciting thing to do in fierce wind and straggly rain is to climb the Great Tower and walk on the roof of the Castle.

This was closed for some of the time we were at the site, precisely due to said wind and rain, so when we saw it was open again we quickly climbed up the long, steep spiral staircases to have a gander before Health and Safety rained on the parade again.

The views looked something like this:

After winding our way back down to the bowels of the Castle, we stumbled across the King's privvy. Or, more accurately, the privvy for the King's guests.

Lucky I had some good reading material...

(We also stopped at the King's loo, but a group of tourists were having a demo from a Tour Guide.

-- Not like that!)

After leaving the Tower, and having our Tunnel tour, it was time to leave the Castle.

On the way back to the car, we stopped for a look at the Roman Pharos - or lighthouse - and the adjacent church. Unfortunately the church was locked, but we had a peek inside the Pharos. 

The lighthouse was probably built in the first century A.D. (!!) and estimates suggest it was around 24 metres high with eight stories.

There were originally two Pharoses, but only this one survives. During Saxon times, the church was built beside the lighthouse and it was used as a bell-tower. (

The Friends of Dover Castle are doing some great work at the site, along with English Heritage, and we salute them. Next time you're visiting  passing through Dover, make sure you empty your piggy bank and check out the Castle.

Gratuitous shot of me in the Castle hallway

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


By May 1940, it was obvious that the German army was much stronger than those of Britain and France. After steamrolling through the Netherlands and Belgium, German armed forces broke through Allied defences in the Ardennes and executed one of their most cunning plans: to surround certain Allied troops and back them into a corner. Trapped on the coast of Dunkirk and separated from the remainder of the French Army, British and French forces bravely fought on, but it soon became clear that they were caught in a hangman's noose, waiting for it to tighten. What could be done?

For some strange reason, one of those great mysteries that shall forever plague historians, German troops were given a 'halt order', which provided the Allies with time to build some defences and co-ordinate their evacuation plan. From deep within the tunnels under Dover Castle a great plan was hatched: the troops would be evacuated from under German noses. 
For nine days men waited on the beaches of Dunkirk, mercilessly bombed by the Luftwaffe while British naval ships tried to rescue them, made especially difficult after the jetty was bombed. Eventually, local boaties from around the South coast of England were called upon to assist the Royal Navy with the evacuation, helping to ferry soldiers through shallow waters to the waiting destroyers. The Royal Air Force also stepped in to help, and made a most valiant effort to protect the departing troops from Luftwaffe fire. 
From May 27 to June 4, Operation Dynamo saw the evacuation of 338,000 troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, bringing them back to ports across the south-east of England, marking one of the most victorious defeats in history. Figures differ, but probably around 40,000 French troops were left behind to be captured or killed by German troops, while up to 68,000 Britons were killed, missing, or captured. One can only imagine how many troops never made it off the beach. 

When the public were eventually told of the retreat and evacuation, there was an outpouring of joy at the "victory" of their men, at the success of the operation. On June 4th, Mr Churchill spoke about the evacuation, saying "A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. ... wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance..."
(Quote is from the website of The Churchill Society,, accessed Nov. 20)

And so, it was with this great story ringing in my head that I convinced Adam to head to Dover. As we stood on the White Cliffs, looking across to France, I could see - in my mind's eye - the troops on the beach, weary, hungry, angry, and could feel how close to home it was for the boaties sailing over to rescue them. Those living in Dover at the time must have been able to see the orange glow of firepower and I wonder if the sound of war was loud enough to touch their ears.

Later that evening, as I read through a brochure on Dover Castle, trying to decide if I was too stingy to (get Adam to) cough up the $64 for a visit, my eye was caught by a heading "SECRET WARTIME TUNNELS". For no extra cost, one could have a tour of the tunnels below the Castle, whence the evacuation of Dunkirk was coordinated. (?!) My heart leapt and the breath caught in my throat. Secret Tunnels?! War!? Evacuation from Dunkirk!?! No extra charge??!!??!!

At 2pm the next day we entered the Secret Wartime Tunnels. Yes, just like that. Just walked on through the front door. As we went on our tour, one thing struck me as amusing - that we all, tourists, wandered around together: English by French by Germans. And I could only picture the disbelief on the faces of those historic figures who coordinated Operation Dynamo from their secret hideaway, at the idea that holidaying Germans might look around their inner lair on a Saturday afternoon trip. It seems strange to me, a child of peace, to think back 60 years and picture those we now see as true friends as real enemies. 
I also had to admit that it seemed a little irreverant that the Secret Wartime Tunnels were just open to the public for their perusal. These are Secret Wartime Tunnels, people! They didn't really seem as special as they might have if it were all hush-hush secret squirrel, and I suspect the fact that they are publicised as Secret Wartime Tunnels! might have something to do with that. (You know, if they really were secret then would one go around labelling them as Secret?)

Although, Dave Hulse, when we were walking around on the hillside above the Secret Wartime Tunnels I did spy these, from behind a safe-looking tree:

and I wondered if The Man was keeping tabs on those who came to view The Tunnels...

The original layer of tunnels was built during the Napoleonic Wars as extra barracks for troops, housing up to 2,000 men. During the Second World War, an extra two layers of tunnels (or possibly more) were added and the area became a military command centre and underground hospital. A telephone exchange was built in the tunnels in 1941 and this required large numbers of batteries and chargers to keep the exchange going. Personnel lived and worked in the tunnels during the war, and would sometimes wait days to see daylight, depending on the risk aboveground. During 1940, the tunnels proved their importance as a strategic military post, with Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey conceiving and executing Operation Dynamo from within.
 During the cold war, some parts of the tunnels were prepared as a potential seat of government in case of nuclear attack. In total, there are over three miles of tunnels winding deep within the Dover Cliffs. Today the public is allowed into level DUMPY, where Dynamo was conceived, while other levels are off-limits, in some cases because they are dangerous. Urban legend claims that there are two other levels of tunnels, one of which has been 'lost' and is the subject of ongoing investigations to rediscover its entrance... Exciting stuff!

With this exciting knowledge in our heads, we took off on our tour. Unfortunately we were too late to view the underground hospital, but we did get to see the exhibits in the Tunnels and take a guided tour. The tour was quite good, treating us as if we were young recruits in 1940, receiving briefings and hearing broadcasts about the war as it unfolded. After this, we were allowed to poke around a few rooms in the tunnels that were used as communications centres and the like. Unfortunately, the public is not allowed to photograph the tunnels, so I shall leave you with a few pictures shamelessly plagiarised from the internet. (Apologies for my poor academic performance in this regard)

 Entrance to the Secret Wartime Tunnels

Above and below: communications hubs

Churchill strategy-making from deep within the bowels of the Dover hillside

We can now say that we have walked where Winston Churchill has tread. What an afternoon! (And I shall leave the morning's explorations of Dover Castle for another post).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Just you wait and see...

Well, Vera Lynn promised Bluebirds, but all we really saw was grey concrete.

If you thought Worthing sounded bad then you should see Dover! To be fair, Worthing was a letdown because it was supposed to be a gorgeous seaside town when it was just a shi.. - well we all know what I thought of Worthing - whereas we didn't really have any expectations of Dover except for the beautiful white cliffs. And it did deliver on those - they were stunning. However, natural landscape aside, Dover was grim. Grim. A centre of grey post-War concrete and people in tracksuit pants smoking cigarettes and looking surly. And it rained all four days we were there.

In its defense, Dover had the crap bombed out of it in World War Two, and so it lost a lot of its beauty and history. Those jolly Germans have a lot to answer for!

(Remains of a church, destroyed in WW2, built by the Romans)

When we first arrived, we had a few hours of sun before the rain set in, so at least we were able to see the White Cliffs in all their glory. And France. France! We were both so surprised at how close the coastline was.

(I told you the natural landscape was lovely)

And that is where I shall leave it, my children. Tomorrow's adventures shall feature CASTLES and SECRET WAR TUNNELS. 

Tomorrow, just you wait and see...

(Vera Lynn singing White Cliffs of Dover )