Walking the White Cliffs of Dover

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

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.

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 National 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 Langdon 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.

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.

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.

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.

County: Kent

Managed by: The National Trust

Map: OS Explorer 138

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

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