Port of call: there’s more to Dover than ferries, white cliffs and the A20

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It’s not every day you wind up at a lock-in with a circle of new best mates. But this is Dover and, as I’m to learn, it’s full of surprises, despite having been overshadowed by Deal and Folkestone as a destination in its own right.

Holding court at the White Horse is convivial proprietor and “rude bald man” Stuart Fox (his moniker is chalked above the bar) who, together with his partner Julian Crowley, runs the oldest pub in town.

Housed in a 700-year-old building, the White Horse has been an alehouse since 1574, the cellar once a morgue for bodies recovered from the sea. Nowadays, most famously, its walls are adorned with the victory scribbles of cross-Channel swimmers, a practice first started in 2002. But with no more space left, “it’s not allowed,” says Stuart, firmly – but not, in fact, rudely.

The White Horse pub and the ruins of 11th-century St James’s Church.
The White Horse pub and the ruins of 11th-century St James’s Church. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

Rewind back to lunchtime and the sun is streaming into the pub’s panelled rooms, refurbished this year to “strip back decades of lead paint to the natural wood”, says Stuart. My friend Zeren and I are tucking into the house speciality, a vast golden-crusted homemade pie with deep chicken and bacon filling.

I’m here because I’m fascinated by Dover. A Margate boy, I’ve written about the Kent coast for 15 years, but until now, only mentioned the town in passing. And yet I’ve heard the rumours about artists moving into cheap studio space, the new taprooms, the under-the-radar restaurants; then there’s the regeneration of the town centre, and £250m revival of the Western Docks, including a new cargo terminal and marina.

But Dover’s past is equally fascinating: the most historic British seaside town, it dates back to AD46, when the Romans established the port of Dubris. World-famous Dover Castle aside, other architectural gems include unspoilt Castle Street, the elegant 19th-century seafront, and medieval buildings such as the 800-year-old Maison Dieu (part of the town hall), whose £9.1m restoration will see it reopening in 2024 as part of a heritage quarter. But still, to locals’ dismay, the town attracts bad press.

“Where Margate is traditional seaside, Dover’s industrial,” says Diederik Smet, who heads Destination Dover. “And while there’s an extremely strong community, it feels transient for visitors because of the nature of the ports. Its public profile is much larger than the town, so everyone knows when lorries are stacking up that you’ll get stuck in traffic. But in fact it’s easy from London on a high-speed train – just over an hour and you’re in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with incredible heritage.”

Breakwater Brewery.
Breakwater Brewery. Photograph: Stephen Emms

Another issue is layout, with the esplanade carved up from the town by the roar of the A20. “There are huge works to improve the visitor experience,” he says. “The new £3.6m Market Square and water feature opens this summer with a stage area, events and performance schedule, as well as new food and drink options. E-bike hire is starting. And, on the waterfront, the new Marina Curve is now home to streetfood stalls and bars.”

After lunch, Zeren and I start our own exploration at wittily named new micropub The Hoptimist, before a stroll along the River Dour to craft beer haven Breakwater Brewery for a signature Dover pale ale; we later head to its new outpost on the Marina Curve, a spectacular location for a pint with panoramic views. Another recent addition is wine bar Vinoteq, whose low-lit basement hosts atmospheric jazz nights.

Churchill B&B.
Churchill B&B. Photograph: Stephen Emms

But Dover’s history means its long-established pubs are worth exploring, too. The Louis Armstrong is an unspoilt live music venue with a rich vein of cultural history. Originally called The Grapes (the name changed in 1972 to honour the jazz star’s passing), its atmospheric interior seems unchanged for half a century: tankards above the bar glisten as sun rays bounce off the ochre walls, and the walls are crammed with gig posters by a stage where live music still takes place most nights.

“It’s where musicians in the 60s used to play their last gig before leaving for the continent,” artist Joanna Jones tells me the next day. “It’s like a spiritual home. You know, you quickly realise that Dover has had this cultural life. It has this deep history.”

Dishes at Nepalese dining room Momohub.
Dishes at Nepalese dining room Momohub. Photograph: Stephen Emms

Jones moved from Berlin in 1997, founding the artist-led not-for-profit DAD (Dover Arts Development) a decade later with friend Clare Smith. Together, the duo has been pivotal in rebooting the creative spirit in Dover, working with hundreds of artists, bringing in over £1m of arts-led investment.

“I’d like to question whether the public perception of Dover is wrong, or whether it’s to Dover’s advantage in the end,” she says. “If somebody bothers to take time, it’s there. What look like empty streets contain so much; and while the town itself, being formerly industrial, has some of the most deprived wards in Kent, Dover is an icon known all over the world. Its history is more akin to a big city, despite a tiny population of just over 30,000, and it is iconic simply because of leaving and arriving: sometimes it’s a frontier, sometimes it’s welcoming. But we mustn’t also forget its ties with trauma: the number of bombs in the second world war that went off was huge. So it’s got all these anomalies.”

Louis Armstrong pub.
Louis Armstrong pub. Photograph: Stephen Emms

How is the town changing? “It’s going into another arena now: 18 artists have relocated from London in the last two years, some with big careers. It attracts working artists, and studio space is now what people are wanting more of, and that’s what’s available here. A lot of artists have taken allotments, so there’s a very thriving community. And Dover Pride is successful, something people may not also expect.”

Jones is keen on its green spaces, which have benefited from £3.1m lottery funding. “Kearsney Abbey and Russell Gardens are the most loved parks, where everybody goes in the summer. And up on the White Cliffs, there’s nothing between you and the sky; I can really breathe up there.” While it’s always been a working town, she says, “the Dovorian spirit of bravery and resistance is there.”

Dover beach
Dover beach. Photograph: Stephen Emms

I think about her words as I tuck into a South African chargrilled chicken wrap for lunch, zingy with watermelon, mint and pomegranate. It’s from the shiny new Big Pan streetfood stall on the just-unveiled Clocktower Square on Marina Curve, a waterfront brimming with positivity under blue skies. And indeed Dover’s eating-out scene also holds surprises, from two Marco Pierre White seafront restaurants and firmly established local favourites like Cullin’s Yard and Aspendos to a new branch of Folkestone’s acclaimed Thong Dee’s Thai, new artisan coffee shops Market Square Kitchen and Café Melange, as well as outstanding Nepalese dining room Momohub, whose dumplings – fried, steamed or ‘jhol’ (in gravy) – are among the finest plates I’ve eaten this year.

As I return to Churchill House, an 18th-century B&B with bohemian furnishings, I stop to walk past the houseplants in my private conservatory and up some steps to a raised terrace filled with outsize ferns and mature palms. You would never know this little tropical paradise is in Dover.

“I like places that don’t offer their goods easily,” Jones said earlier. “And that’s what I think makes Dover interesting. What makes it develop in a unique way.”

Accommodation was provided by Destination Dover at the Churchill House B&B (doubles from £70 B&B). Follow @destinationdover and @dover_arts.