Huddled in the rolling belly of the ship, Albinus re-read the message he’d been given in an effort to distract himself from the rolling in his stomach. Months on the road had inured him to travel, but for a man born and bred in a city where the land stayed still pretty much of the time, the road over the channel was not proving enjoyable.
A voice on the deck above called out a command, and Albinus felt the speed of the ship finally slacken as it began to tack in to the harbour. He rolled up and carefully slotted the scroll into its case, and tucked it into a bag under his cloak. With one foot he nudged the sleeping form on the low cot below the bench, which groaned and curled tighter into itself.
‘We’ve arrived,’ he announced, and at the sound of his voice the figure pulled itself upright and, wobbling, lurched to its feet, the thick sheaf of brown hair falling back to reveal the pale and green-tinged face of a young woman.
Other passengers began standing, green-faced or offensively sprightly, and gathered their luggage. The young woman, known since joining Albinus’ household as a child as Sasticca, shouldered a large pack, and made it up onto the deck, down the gangplank and onto the cobbled harbour square before dropping it to the ground and collapsing on top of it with a heartfelt groan.
Albinus gave his slave a few moments to gather herself together as he took in the last country on his journey, seeming at first glance much like any other in the Empire. Behind the familiar offices, inns and clustering apartments though was a new landscape. The hills shouldering the town were steep and mist topped, and behind them curtains of rain fell, even now blowing towards the sea in great gusts. To the right through the rain and mist he could make out glimpses of white, no doubt the cliffs he’d have seen on the crossing if he hadn’t been sheltering below decks.
‘Come on, we’ve got a job that needs doing.’ He commanded after a little while, and then strode up the main street through the town, followed by the woman trying to find a balance between carrying his travel pack, not slipping on the cobbles and not being sick. At any moment, she was sure, her stomach would come up and that would be it for her and her cleanest travelling cloak. The crossing had been worse than even the bar slave at Caletum had said; no wonder Julius Caesar had had such a rough time of it. And he probably hadn’t had to sleep on the floor.
They soon reached a fine looking inn, not far from the walls of the fort. Despite their knocking and calls, there was no answer however.
‘It’s not even a quiet time of year,’ Albinus ranted, as they stepped out into the rain and wind, which was coming now in regular fits and bursts.
A woman passing by looking up at them, and then shuffled over, ‘You’re trying to get into the Cliffs of Dubris, then? It’s closed today, been closed all week in fact. Strange business if you ask me,’ she added with disapproval, her odd accent lilting over the Latin. ‘If you’re looking for somewhere warm, you can’t go wrong with the inn at the lighthouse. It’s just up there, not more than 10 minutes.’ She pointed behind them, up one of the hills crowding over the town. At the top they could make out a glint of fire, almost lost in the daylight and weather.
‘Tell them Camilla sent you,’ she smiled, nodded and was soon lost around a corner.
Slave and master exchanges glances, and then turned on the path leading up the hill. As they crossed the small town, they could make out locals sheltering in the lee of bars, bakeries, food stalls, a furniture warehouse and even a small book store. They stopped at one counter to snack on cheesy bread and soup, where locals rubbed shoulders with other visitors and tried to warm up from the inside. As they climbed the hill, snatches of sunlight made it through the clouds, lighting up the trees and the sea which they could now see spread below them. The lighthouse, rather than a tiny colonial mound, was a tall and impressive structure, recently built enough for the bricks to shine slightly in the sun. At the top, figures moved around, tending the light and looking out to sea, and voices echoed inside its thick walls.
Less impressive was the brick building squatting next to it, probably the inn they’d been directed to. While Sasticca went inside to make arrangements for their stay and horses the next day, Albinus gazed up at the lighthouse wondering at the Fate’s decision to lead him to this backwater of the Empire, where even here the relentless energy of the old She Wolf could be felt. Though perhaps not forever, if the message he carried from the Emperor to the struggling commanders in the limitless north of the island reached them. For now, he thought, staring out across the narrow sea, I’ll enjoy the walls of civilization that will keep the foreign weather out and underfloor heating in.
1094 years later
‘Will, get back here boy!’
The boy in question didn’t pause in his breakneck dash up the castle steps. Ducking into an alcove on the staircase he just avoided a small troop of knights, heavily kitted out and liable to mow over any undersized servant brat that got in their way. As their footsteps faded overhead he ran up the last flight, and hid behind a wall hanging before anyone could spot him. From there he could hear the shouting of the knights that had passed, as well as a whole array of lords and dignitaries, each trying to make themselves heard over the raucous sounds of servants bustling, nervous horses in the keep and the usual life of the castle.
‘He has already taken London, and soon Kent will fall, we must move now!’ One voice rose above the rest, and then a silence fell as someone entered the main hall, their footsteps ringing on the stone floor.
‘The traitors in London may have allowed him in without a fight, but he was mistaken in not throwing all his weight at us first. That mistake will cost him the war. Yes he will turn here, and then we’ll make our move and show this invader that the loyal English will not fall so lightly.’
Muttering and some scattered applause followed these words, and then voices rose again as tactics and plans were discussed. It was high summer, and any day now the army of Prince Louis of France would arrive and crash against the walls of the castle.
Having heard all he needed to hear, Will peeked out from behind the wall hanging, ready to make a break for the stairs. The long tables in the dining hall, where he was hidden, where being scrubbed and set by a small army of servants, who also swept the floors and dusted brightly coloured banners hanging above the high table at the far end. To his right through the open arch connecting the rooms he could make out the crowd gathered in the main hall, where the thrones of the King and Queen of England waited, and where the worthies of the castle gathered to plan, argue and debate.
Beyond that was the room that the Constable had set for himself in the absence of the King. Will had never made it past the main hall, on a dare late at night, but other servants had spoken of a large, fine bed, warm furs all over the place, a special room just for treasure and everything done in the brightest colours you could think of. It sounded a world away from Will’s hay-strewn corner in the kitchen downstairs.
Just then a face turned towards him, and before the other servant could shout he’d escaped and charged down the stairs into the kitchens. Once there Rolf the baker grabbed him before he could make it outside and pushed him in among the other servant boys who were helping with odd jobs. He found himself fetching water, grinding barley, salting fish and soon lost track of what he had been doing before being caught.
It wasn’t till dusk was falling that he remembered. Looking around furtively, he saw that there was no one watching, put the butter he’d been patting into form in its box, and slipped out, up the stairs and into the keep. His cap was almost blown off in the strong winds, which blew the heady smells of the kitchen and the stables after him as he ran through the clusters of men and women finishing their tasks for the day and out through the gates. No one paid any attention to him, and he’d made it all the way to the old watch tower before someone called out to him.
‘Oi Will, what are you doing out here?’
He looked up the tower and saw his little sister Phillipa peering down at him, hair streaming out behind her.
‘What are you doing up there?’ He retorted. Her face disappeared and then reappeared around the door of the tower and she replied. ‘I’m watching for the ships from France to come, so I can be the first to know and will get a reward from the head cook.’
‘No, you’d just get into trouble for being out in the tower after dark. Get back, before Margery takes your sleeping spot.’
His sister turned back to the castle with a grumble, but before she ran away she asked, ‘What are you doing out then? You’ll get in trouble too you know.’
He nodded, and then said simply, ‘It’s Albina.’
His sister frowned, nodded and then ran back through the fading light to the castle.
Will turned back to the tower and the sea behind it, then ran and slipped down the wet grass of the hill and onto the path heading west. Carts and riders passed him, throwing up mud and almost trampling him a few times, so he stuck to the side of the path, covered in weeds. As he trudged the light faded and he felt sure he’d never make it in time. Then he finally reached the small turn off from the main road and followed the winding path up the hill to a grassy, tussocky, windy field overlooking the sea. As he climbed, he looked ahead and saw the great white cliffs, mottled here and there by greenery, but almost seeming to glow in the fading light. He remembered his mother bringing him here, in the few short years he recalled before she died, and telling him that no army that came across the sea to Dover could face the tall, ghostly cliffs, but would turn back in fear. He’d believed her, 3 years old and too in awe of adult wisdom and those mighty cliffs to imagine it could be otherwise. 6 years later he knew better, not trusting in adults or cliffs to keep him and his sister safe.
A nearby whinny brought him back to his mission, and he turned his back on the cliffs and scrambled amongst the bushes and shrubs until he found Albina. She was munching contentedly on grass, and seemed unsurprised to see him. She whinnied again, tossing her white mane about her short, furry neck.
Untying his rope belt, Will fashioned a halter and after passing it over her head began to lead her back down the path. Other ponies watched them go, ears twitching and then distracted by hunger returned to their own business.
‘You can’t stay out here tonight, girl, not with Prince Louis coming. Huw said the French would eat anything, so they probably wouldn’t be able to resist ponies, especially ones as pretty as you.’ So saying he patted the thick, white fur of her neck, burying his hand in the warmth.
If he was quick, there should be a back corner of the stables with enough space for a quiet, tamed wild pony, especially one that was so obviously lucky, with fur the white of the cliffs and the sense to come in when a French army approached. They had both been lucky, him and Albina, and Phillipa too, and even if the castle fell – which it wouldn’t, not with those huge walls and the old tower built by giants from long ago – there were ponies on the cliffs that they could hide among, and secret caves on the beach that their mother had shown them. In the distance ahead a light was lit on the tower, guiding him home.
799 years later again
This post is a little bit different from my usual reports of our travels, but the history and sense of place that I felt at Dover kept drawing these stories out and I couldn’t resist.
When we visited there were no Roman messengers wandering about, but there were the remains of what is thought to have been an inn, which we were unable to get into. A helpful lady directed us to the castle instead, and after the snack described in the first story, we eventually found the old Roman lighthouse. You can still go in, though the steps to the top are long gone. It was in use for a long time afterwards, when people had largely forgotten about the Romans, and in the meantime Dover castle was built around and behind it.
The castle in incredible, the largest in England and amazingly intact. The kitchens have been filled with models showing how it would have looked, and each floor had rooms fully furnished and decorated in bright banners, tables, chairs, chests and re-enactors. While we were in the great hall they put on a performance, making some visitors the royal family for the day, and leading us all in a dance to honour the king and queen. It was a lot of fun, and became yet another memory from a holiday full of wonderful memories.
By the time we left the castle it was getting dark, and so our walk to the cliffs, along the side of a road without a footpath, wasn’t the most pleasant but we made it in time to see them before the light entirely disappeared. They were tall and impressive, and someday I’d like to go back and climb down onto the beach to look up at them in full daylight. There were also many wild ponies.
So I hope you will forgive my indulgence in fiction and history and take my recommendation to visit Dover yourself one day, and see if you can find ancient foot steps as well.