High above the port of Dover, a short road runs into a dead end, but once a year a door opens to reveal a huge tunnel complex under the hills.
Dover is a famous town – for being the gateway to Europe and for its massive medieval castle, but fewer are aware of the huge Victorian fortifications that sit on the other side of the deep valley.
In size, they’re about three times larger than the castle, but being low lying and made up of deep ditches, they’re not the sort of thing you’re going to see when looking around the town. Yet these forts were the front line in defending England right up to WW2.
The forts were built to defend us from Napoleon, although most of what we see today is Victorian — and the design is ingeniously deadly.
Each fort was surrounded by an exceptionally deep ditch, and what would normally be seen as a protective barrier was turned into a weapon. Any attacking army would need to climb down into the ditch to then attack the main fort — and the ditch was designed to be a death trap.
However, if you work in the fort, you want supplies, and that means a gate in the wall – and that’s a weak point.
So, the Victorian’s dug a tunnel and reinforced it against attack to create what is widely considered to be the best example of its type anywhere.
Sealed off, the tunnel entrance is now looked after by the Western Heights Preservation Society, and they open them up for pre-booked tours once a year.
Up here, with views across Dover, a door is opened in the brick wall to reveal glimpses of the tunnel behind. Although it looks to be two tunnels side by side, the closed doors lead to just a small guardroom. There’s just one tunnel, designed to be a defensive approach.
Inside, the brick-lined tunnel is high to allow carts through, and exceptionally well built. It was supplied with the very latest in road technology of the time, wooden “cobbles” to damp down the noise, although sadly today many are missing having been stolen fairly recently by people with no idea of their rarity.
The tunnel snakes slightly in an S-shape which limits the amount of the tunnel a person can see and hence see to shoot at – giving the defenders better protection from an attack.
It’s a relatively short tunnel, running under one of the huge earthwork banks, but at the far end, just past a modern brick wall is another layer of defence. Two huge iron doors that could block the tunnel, and beyond that, a drawbridge.
If you’ve ever seen films showing someone madly trying to wind up a drawbridge to protect a castle – then prepare to be surprised, as that was never what happened.
Drawbridges are pivoted, with a heavy weight on the bottom, so when released, their inclination is to stay upright with the weight at the bottom. In order to lower the drawbridge, you have to raise the weight — and to close the drawbridge, simply release the weight.
It’s far easier to close a drawbridge than to open it — despite what Hollywood would prefer to show.
However, while this is the end of the entrance tunnel, down a steep staircase is even more to see. The thing that turned the ditches from defence into attack.
If anyone managed to get up to the forts and got into the ditches, they would be attacked by guns from almost every angle. It’s been tested, and there’s not a single hiding space anywhere in the deep ditches — they’re a zone of pure death.
Fortunately, never tested.
Deep down under the forts, at the base of the ditches, rooms would have been manned by soldiers prepared to fire through tiny slots in the walls at the enemy. Initially explosive shells, but later machine guns were added.
The forts were in use by the army right up to the 1950s, and during WW2, some of these deep rooms were used for communications systems, and there’s evidence of rudimentary toilets and facilities being added.
But it would have been a deep and dark space to spend the day working on keeping the lines of communication working.
Having seen the forts from inside the tunnel, on the other side of the road, it’s possible to go into the forts themselves.
A very small tunnel that you have to bend over double to get through is the modern way in, and then you’re standing inside those famous ditches.
And if by ditches you’re thinking of something modest in size — think again.
It’s possible to walk all the way around the deep cavernous spaces, and despite the warm sunny day, there’s a deeply uncomfortable eeriness about the space.
The monumental walls loom over you threateningly crushing the impudent mortal that dared to venture into their realm. Vast empty spaces cut deep into the soil to protect England from Napoleon, now mournful and desolate.
Today slowly being reclaimed by nature, all around the reminders of death with the slits in the walls behind which soldiers would have mown down anyone who climbed into the space.
The fort is open most days to walk around permitted routes, and the Preservation Society also hosts special open days to open up more of the space. The same for the Grand Shaft, which I will write about shortly.
The North Entrance is open once a year in September.