South England: Dover to Land's End
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, delighted to be your travel partner as we explore more of the best of Europe. This time we're at the White Cliffs of Dover, kicking off a South England adventure.
We'll play a little cricket, learn some pub etiquette, explore the greatest warship in English history, enjoy an old-time English resort, run with the ponies on a desolate moor, and venture to the far tip of England.
Like the Continent, Great Britain is a delight to explore. From Dover, we'll follow the coast across southern England visiting Brighton, and Portsmouth. Traveling through Cornwall, we go all the way to Land's End before finishing in Dartmoor.
Like many travelers, our first look at England is Dover. Even with the opening of the English Channel tunnel, the port of Dover seems busy as ever.
The crossing between Dover and France is a shipping thoroughfare. Ferries, hydrofoils and hovercraft shuttle constantly back and forth. France is just 23 miles away. There it is, within sight on a sunny day.
Southern England sits upon a foundation of chalk. Miles of cliffs tower boldly above the beaches. The most famous are the White Cliffs of Dover.
And Dover — with its bold cliffs and formidable castle — symbolizes the defense of Britain. For centuries, the constable — or chief sheriff — of Dover town has been a symbolically important position.
With the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, and even the Queen Mother all being honorary holders of this office, the message was clear... no unwelcome guests will be allowed on these shores.
Dover Castle. For nearly 900 years, English troops were garrisoned inside its medieval walls — on guard and protecting the coast from any European menace.
But there have been invasions. This Roman lighthouse is a reminder that Julius Caesar landed nearby as the Romans established their colony of Britannia.
The Roman fleet was based in Dover harbor. To guide the boats they burned wet wood by day — for maximum smoke, and dry wood by night — for maximum light.
Long considered the "the key to England" by potential invaders, Dover Castle provides a quick review of England's military history. An earthen mound, part of an Iron Age fortress, was here when the Romans came. After the Romans, the Saxons invaded and left this church. England's next uninvited guests were the Normans.
In the 12th century, King Henry II had this keep built making Dover castle the most secure fortress in all England.
Much later — around 1800, with the threat of Napoleon — the fortifications were beefed up again. Tunnels were dug into the chalk to house 2,000 soldiers.
And in WWII, more bombproof tunnels were dug. Visitors touring the maze of tunnels get to see and hear about the vital role they played during the war. There's an elaborate communications center, an underground hospital and a command center. Attacking Nazi aircraft were charted on screens and Battle of Britain defenses were plotted. From these tunnels, allied commanders looked out over a battle zone nicknamed Hellfire Corner.
But enough war history. Let's hit the beach! Brighton is south England's Coney Island. Britain's royalty established it as a popular resort about 200 years ago.
Brighton's ostentatious Royal Pavilion recalls those flamboyant days. The royal pleasure palace's eccentric exterior hides an extravagant interior.
While the palace was a royal holiday residence — this was the king's study — its focus was on entertaining. Music was a passion of King George IV. In the music room the king's own band serenaded guests under Chinese-inspired decor.
The King's other passion: dining. Here in the banquet room, the table is set for the dessert course. Imagine England's elite munching crumpets under the one-ton chandelier... with its dragons exhaling light through lotus-shaped shades.
In 1840, a train connected London and Brighton making the beach accessible to the masses for the first time. Within ten years Queen Victoria sold the palace. Since then — wind, rain, or shine — Brighton has been "London by the Sea" where the people come for a good time... and a fine toffee apple.
Brighton's many amusements line the surfside promenade and its pleasure pier. While times were better in the days before cheap charter flights to Spain, Brighton still cranks out the fun.
Vendor: Candy Floss?
England's natural beauty is particularly striking after one of its candyfloss resort towns. These chalk cliffs are often mistaken for Dover's but they're the White Cliffs of Beachy Head — same chalk, but farther West along the coast.
Beachy Head is a highlight of the South Downs Way — one of many great public walks that criss-cross Britain. Our producer, Simon, is joining me on a short hike.
Locals consider these trails a birthright. About once a year English hiking clubs sponsor what they call a "Mass Trespass" when walkers throughout the land use every trail and cross every fence to assert their public right of way. These "kissing gates" allow people to pass... but not the sheep.
Rick: Are you walking South Downs Way?
Hiker: Yes, from Eastborne to Winchester.
Rick: How long of a hike is that?
Hiker: One hundred miles.
Rick: How many days?
Hiker: Seven days.
Rick: Expect sunshine every day?
Hiker: Well hopefully yes.
A good English walk comes with cute villages... plenty of wildlife... and mysterious history — like the Long Man of Wilmington. The chalk that makes all those coastal cliffs extends inland. Locals — since prehistoric times — have scratched away the topsoil to decorate their hillsides with chalk art. Their origins are unclear. I've been told this guy's a sun god opening the doors of heaven or a marker for monks on a pilgrimage trail. At 230 feet tall, this may just be the largest representation of a human being anywhere.
Stories and legends like these thrive in the pubs — a warm, friendly and for many, essential part of any hike in Britain.
Pub is short for "public house" — it's the neighborhood's extended living room. It's a multi-generational affair and, while children aren't served beer, the entire family is welcome. Some pubs are brewery-owned and serve only that company's brew. "Free houses" — like this pub — are free to serve whatever beer they fancy. England loves its brews. Each village seems to have its own micro-brew.
Rick: What is the local brew, Mike?
Mike: Town Crier.
Whether you're drinking or eating, don't wait to be served. Go to the bar to order.
Beer aficionados go for the real ale and bitters. They're from the long-handled pumps literally hand-drawn from kegs in the cellar. For an American-style beer — cold and carbonated — ask for a lager. They fizz out of the short tap handles.
Whatever your choice, pubs are always welcoming places to meet locals.
Continuing west along the coast, we're heading to Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy.
When Britannia ruled the waves, it did so from Portsmouth. Its great warships — known as the 'Wooden Walls of England' — were all that lay between England and a European invasion.
The most important ship in British history is HMS Victory. From its deck Admiral Nelson beat the French fleet at Trafalgar saving Britain from a Napoleonic invasion.
Commander: HMS Victory is the oldest commissioned warship in the world today, and still manned today by men from in the Royal Navy.
And its commanding officer is giving us a private tour. For the British, this ship is more a cathedral than a museum.
Rick: What about all the cannons? Didn't all that slow it down?
Commander: Victory was a first-rate ship. She had 104 cannons, but she was still a fast-sailing ship and she was chosen by a number of admirals as their flagship. The ship itself has three masts, she has 27 miles of running rigging, and she was able to set 32 sails when all the sails were set, and she is able to make 8-10 knots through the water.
Rick: Why is this ship so historic to English people?
Commander: Well, this was the flagship of Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, and he actually fought the battle from this deck. And it was here where he was actually shot and he was at this position where he fell at the battle at about half past one in the afternoon.
In here you will see the Admiral's dining table, and it was at this table that Nelson planned the battle of Trafalgar and briefed his officers.
In here we have the Admiral's living quarters. And as you can see it is decorated and prepared for the Admiral's daily use.
Rick: The Admiral had it pretty plush .
Commander: He did, however, every piece of furniture that you see in here was stripped away when the ship went to action. Things were designed to be very practical; the chairs fold away, everything was then placed in canvas bags and put into the hold. The furniture at the stern was actually stripped away and could expose three gun ports. One here, one in the center, and one on the starboard side. We didn't use these gun ports very often cause it was when you were actually running away from your enemies.
The idea wasn't actually to sink the enemy ship. What you had to do was immobilize it and get the ships as close together as possible so your boarding parties could get across and take over the opposition ship.
This is the lower gun deck of the ship. The main fighting deck, the deck we are standing on, is original oak timbers, and the battle of Trafalgar was fought on this deck, and it is remarkable condition.
Rick: I just can't imagine these tight quarters in the heat of battle.
Commander: Yes, it must have been an incredible place to be during battle, the noise from the cannon, the smoke. It would be very difficult to see what was going on but every body was so highly trained that they knew what to do.
Rick: So, this was a high-tech cannon in its day?
Commander: It was. The British gunners where highly trained. They practiced every day on a rolling deck. One of the other advantages the British gunners had was the flintlock mechanism; it gave instantaneous fire. They could judge the roll of the ship and when they had taken aim, they pulled the trigger and the gun fired. It then recoiled into the ship and then the reloading process took place, and it only took 90 seconds to reload this cannon. The French and Spanish where taking anywhere from three to five minutes to do this same process.
When the Admiral was shot, he was brought down here and laid against this ship's knee. Surgeon Beatty immediately attended him, but realized little could be done for the Admiral. At about half past four, Captain Hardy came down and reported that they had won a glorious victory. And it was at that time Nelson replied, "Thank God I have done my duty." He then died.
England cherishes its freedom and its way of life. While some of it makes perfect sense, Cricket has me mystified. I've joined a neighborhood gang for a lesson.
Rick: Now, I know how to play baseball, but I have no idea how to play cricket. Can you explain it to me in a nutshell?
Boys: You have a batsman, fielder, wicket keeper and a bowler. The idea of the bowler is to get the person who is batting out, and the batsman has to guard the wicket and hopefully hit it across the field.
Rick: So now, wait a minute; the pitcher is trying to knock this off? So this is the wicket? Do you hit it on the pointed side or?
Boys: Flat Side.
Rick: So, if I am batting, my goal is to keep the pitcher from hitting the wicket? Okay, here we go. Ah, there goes the....Okay, let's try again. Three strikes and I'm still in!
Boy: You're out.
Rick: I am out? Oh gosh. All right, I'm getting the hang of it — I think.
Rick: Go for two Adam, let's go for two!
Adam: You got me out!
Rick: I did? I am sorry. Can we do that over?
I guess I'm still far from understanding this baffling British pastime, but it sure is fun.
Adam: Good hit.
Rick: All right, give me five.
Striking scenery welcomes us to England's westernmost county, Cornwall. Cornwall is Celtic, not Anglo-Saxon like the rest of England.
The Celts inhabited Britain long before the Angles and Saxons invaded pushing them to the more rugged fringes — Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and here in Cornwall.
Mousehole is typical of the many charming and now touristy fishing villages that sugar this coastline. It's famous for smuggling, as the last place where the pre-Roman language of Cornish was spoken, and for fishing. Today, Mousehole harvests tourists as well as fish. Our shipshape little B&B was built shortly after the Spanish burned the town in 1595.
Fishing boats still bring home the mackerel, lobster and crab. But the pilchard fleet is down to one boat.
Pilchards — oversized sardines, harvested for their oil that once lit street lamps in London — used to be the main catch. A local exhibit tells visitors the story.
Guide: I grab a few up like that, there you are. What you do now is take it across to this... bring it up here to what we call a coffin. You do this little job what we call "hammer and boning" like I say... just like that. Ninety-four fish in each one of these sections.
We put on this here, what we call a pressing board. This idea is to take out all the oil and juices of the fish. You can see it down here — that is the oils and water coming out of the fish. Then you end up in here like this and this has a shelf life of one to 18 months.
Rick: Now I know more than I every thought I could know about pilchards that I ever thought I'd ever know. But how do I get the smell off of my hands?
Guide: Just soap and water, Best of luck to you.
A nicer-smelling local treat is the Cornish pasty.
Rick: Let's see here, I think I'll have the Pork and Apple. So, why are these called Cornish Pasties?
Vendor: Well, when they used to be made, back years ago, it was because they used to work down in the tin mines, which was one of the biggest industries we had down here, then. And because they had all these sort of tin toxins on their hands, the people at home, the wives and grandmothers would make them with a really thick crimp around here, and that is what they would hold it with. So they would eat all these pieces in here, like that, then they would throw them away.
Designed as one of the original to-go foods, Cornish pasties still make great meals for travelers on the move.
Rick: So how much is that?
Vendor: 1.75 please, that's great, thanks very much. Bye now!
Along with fishing, tin mining is a traditional Cornwall industry. Abandoned mines are reminders of its long history. Even back in ancient times, Greek and Roman traders came to Cornwall for tin. With the Industrial Revolution, the demand for tin cans was huge. It was dangerous work. Long treacherous shafts were dug out under the seabed. At its peak, there were 340 tin mines in Cornwall.
Imagine, 50,000 Cornish miners — unwrapping their daily pasty. It was a hard life. And then it got worse. With the collapse of the local tin industry, miners left Cornwall for other mines throughout the world.
Our next stop is the far southwest tip of England... Land's End. A short walk takes you away from a commotion of tourist shops to a point where you really are at the very tip of England.
Then, if you're feeling really touristy pick up your souvenir photo.
Rick: I think I'd like that!
Woman: Okay, we'll pop up where you come from on the signpost, with your mileage.
Rick: That's Rick Steves, R-I-C-K... S-T-E-V-E-S. Good, now I am ready for my Land's End Photograph.
Woman: Okay, you can sit, or you can stand in front of the post.
Rick: I think I'll prop up against the post.
Woman: All right, sir, can you give me a lovely pose from Seattle and say Whiskey!
Land's End is fun, but a two-hour drive takes us deep into Dartmoor — a place I'd rather linger. It's nature in your face...windblown on top...overgrown in the valleys.
When I want to be really alone, I grab my coat and camera, unfold my local Ordnance Survey map — which lists every pub, trail and remnant of some forgotten civilization — and head into the Moors.
Back in the '70's this was where I decided to become a travel writer.
Dartmoor is one of just a handful of moors that give this densely populated land a breather. Vast medieval commons, these are still places where all can pass, anyone can graze their sheep, and ponies run wild.
Old stone slab clapper-bridges remind hikers that for thousands of years, people have walked these same paths. A place like Dartmoor gives you a chance to be alone with England's history.
This stone circle, a short hike from the village of Gidleigh, is as old as the pyramids. And it's all yours. It's just you and the winds of the past.
From Dover to Land's End to the mysteries of Dartmoor, I hope you've enjoyed our swing through the South of England. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.