Not just one, but two Roman forts

Dover was my first professional archaeological job. I joined Brian Philp's team as a supervisor in July 1970, as he began excavating the burial ground of St Martin le Grand and the Society of Friends burial ground behind the recently-closed Cause is Altered pub (a fine old inn that was stupidly demolished because it was erroneously thought to be in the path of the new by-pass) and St Mary's school buildings.

The dig was a hugely dramatic one. Almost immediately, a few cm beneath the tarmac of the school playground, we discovered the hefty mortared flint wall of Dover's "Saxon Shore" fort, honeycombed by painstakingly hacked-out Quaker graves, and then, amongst the brick-lined tombs of the burial ground, dozens of chalk block wall foundations of an earlier fort of the Classis Britannica.

I was eventually put in charge of the excavation in the yard of soon to be demolished St Mary's school buildingsOne rainy day at the end of the season I was sent to supervise a mechanical excavator in search of the medieval town ditch. I soon found the ditch, but also became the first person to glimpse the 1.75m high painted-plaster decorated walls of what came to be called the "Dover Painted House" (we hadn't yet obtained permission to dig in what was then a car park so the spectacular painted plaster walls were "discovered" the following summer). I returned for several more seasons, starting work on restoring the fallen plaster (later completed by Wendy Williams) using an office in a disused barrack building in Dover Castle.

The site was near the Prince of Wales Sea Training School (closed 1975) and we would hear the ringing of the school bell from the trenches.

Across the road stood the Cowgate Stores, a tiny shop (seen in this photograph) run by Arthur and Ida Heap. Arthur was small, asthmatic and garruluous. Ida was large, and smilingly long-sufferin of her husband. He'd done someting in HM Customs, but now spend his retirement selling tins of peas and inventing a new method of music notation. He had moved an upright piano into the room above the shop, and he would attempt, only partly successfuly, to accompany me in oboe/piano duets. Arthur and Ida soon decided to retire and closed the shop, and appeared to live off the remains of their stock for several years.

During the first season we slept on the floors of the school. In later years we squatted (legally) in a couple of empty houses in Albany Place that were due to be demolished. In 1970 this area of Dover was a pleasantly run-down urban area of shops, workshops, a builder's yard, an undertaker, schools, old houses and pubs. The multistorey car park that had been planned for the site of the Painted House was never built, and for a long time the area was a wasteland crossed by a steeply-climbing "by-pass" (it was raised to avoid destroying the remains of the forts) up which trucks rumbled until, no long afterwards, the whole devastation was made pointless by an even bigger road that took traffic to the M20.

Dover's poet Churchill was presumably amongst the hundreds of bodies we exhumed from the burial ground (to be reburied elsewhere) but I don't think we were able to tell which bones were his. The various surviving gravestones also disappeared.

It was through Cowgate and along Queen Street that Elizabeth Ist arrived in Dover in 1573.

To this day, the sound of seagulls takes me back to Dover...

ARCHAEOLOGY