Walking the White Cliffs of Dover

You’ve seen them from afar, so why not feel them underfoot?

Words & Pictures:
Dan Aspel

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Park your car in White Cliffs country and something strange
happens. Your radio is convinced you’re in France. Or Belgium. Or the
Netherlands. In fact, only two British stations survive in this melting pot of
continental chit-chat (Classic FM and Radio 4, fittingly). It puts an
interesting twist on this most English of places. The White Cliffs are one of
the most striking images in our national psyche, and just as they veer deep
into the realm of continental broadcasts, they also act as breakwater, dividing
all that is European from all that is ours.
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Despite standing just 34km from the land of berets and
Bouillabaisse (you can even see the French coast on a fine day), this landscape
simply couldn’t be more British. Our wild lands can turn from seething and dark
to glowing and glorious in a simple flash of sunlight, and the Kentish coast is
no exception. While its cliffs may look perpetually glum against a backdrop of
grey cloud (beautiful in its own stiff-upper-lip kind of way), a burst of
sunlight reveals acres of contrast and contour, making the whole view surge to
life. It’s a transformation unmatched in the less rain-swept and dramatic parts
of the world. Mingling these breathtaking views with a rich insight into our
national heritage, there are few better places to bring children for a day’s
wandering. But how best to see them? Well we think we know...

Starting at the
P1013966National Trust’s excellent visitor centre (TR335421) head eastwards along the cliff-top paths.
The bustle of the spectacular harbour soon fades, leaving nothing but the
gentle whips and tugs of the wind. What lies beyond is a landscape of coastal
ruggedness, filled with gnarled, weather-sculpted bushes and rolling hills in
the mold of Sussex’s South Downs. As you walk on the land dips down in the
cleft of
P1014056Langdon Hole, where you’ll find a feast of wildlife nestled in its
green and grassy slopes. Rabbits and berries and flowers all flourish away from
the worst of the wind, while the ubiquitous gulls - and lesser seen kittiwakes,
peregrines and fulmar - whirl overhead. Plenty to spot for the budding birders
in your group. And for the wannabe geologists, the land all around is a mixture
of the soft and the sheer, with the very edges of the cliffs tumbling down with
sudden sharpness to broken rocks far, far below. Like any coastline lashed by
wind and rain, it’s the result of a gradual weakening. But the slow-grinding
forces of nature are eating with unusual speed into the rock of these sparkling
white cliffs. Reach out and feel their texture yourself and you’ll see why. The
chalk is pliant and malleable, like warmed putty.
P1014190 Just as it smears and
crumbles to the touch, you can leave fingerprints pressed into the faces with
surprisingly little effort. It’s a world far from the tough gritstone edges of
the Peaks or the igneous gabbro of Skye’s Cuillin:  it is soft and shapely and vulnerable. The
network of byways and fences placed by the National Trust is proof of just how
transitory a landscape it is. Paths criss-cross each other, pulling further
back from the gradual encroachment of cliff and sea. Some of the older routes
are now abandoned, weaving knee-weakeningly close to the edge. This is just one
of the reasons why the Regatta Foundation has supported the National
Trust’s work on the site (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/get-involved/donate/current-appeals/white-cliffs-of-dover-appeal/supporters/).
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Without their efforts in maintaining safe and well-marked tracks across these
beautiful edges, far fewer people would be able to explore them in comfort and
security. But, thanks in part to Regatta’s support, the current routes couldn’t
be clearer and you can walk for miles along this stretch of coast in perfect
ease.

South Foreland lighthouse rises from the fields a pleasing two
miles on your journey. As white as the cliffs it overlooks, it’s an excellent
destination for those walking with children. Boasting a new and improved tea
room (packed with refreshments for walkers of all sizes), it also serves as a
base for free seaside walks for the little people in your party.

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So how best to visit this wonderful corner of Kent? Well, while
they demand a visit in their own right, we suggest sneaking the White Cliffs
into your next Channel crossing. If you’re catching an afternoon ferry to
Calais, arrive with the sunrise. Not only will you have have a far less
stressful journey down to the coast, but you’ll be able to explore one of
Britain’s most iconic landscapes up close and in spectacular detail. And that’s
an experience no ship deck panorama or postcard portrait can capture.

 

- The National Trust
organises regular events and walks around the White Cliffs. The next - a
Christmas themed guide to the site -
takes place on Monday 17 December 2012.

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/white-cliffs-dover/things-to-see-and-do/events/#iframeEvents

 

- Other attractions in
the area include the awe-inspiring Dover Castle, managed by English Heritage
and with family tickets available for £42.90:
http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/dover-castle/

 

 

 

County:                                               Kent

Managed by:                                       National
Trust

Map:                                                    OS
Explorer 138

Parking at NT Visitor Centre: Grid
ref: TR335421, Post code: CT15 5NA

DA headshot

Dan is a journalist specialising in mountaineering, hiking and
the outdoors. He currently works for Trail
magazine.

 

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