White Cliffs of Dover
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The time for staycations
As I wrote just over a month ago, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the world in a way no one foresaw earlier this year. The number of deaths has surprised everyone, the economy is in the midst of the greatest contraction in almost a century, and international travel has all but stopped.
While travel has rightfully taken a backseat, it's also allowed me to explore my own backyard a little more - and one of the places I've wanted to visit for as long as I can remember is Dover.
When I was younger I had a children's atlas of the UK, and I remember being captivated by the cartoony illustrations of the White Cliffs of Dover. And that's how I think of them now, so surreal that they almost seem like cartoony illustrations, so when a friend proposed a trip to see them, I jumped at the chance.
A town of few sights
I didn't realise just how close Dover is to London. Coming from the landlocked Midlands, any coastline seems a long way away, but from London the south coast is a short drive. In fact, once we got out of the city, the drive along the M2 and A2 took about 90 minutes.
It's probably why Dover is a good shout coming from London, but not sure if I would recommend it for anyone travelling further. While it's undoubtedly beautiful, there's not a tonne of things to do here.
We arrived and parked up in one of the few small parks, and it directly overlooked the port. The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, and there was an almost constant stream of ferries coming into the port and unloading their goods. For a guy who doesn't get to see the sea very often, watching the port operate was quite cool.
One of the first landmarks you see driving in is Dover Castle. It's the largest castle in the UK and dates back to the 11th century, but is currently closed due to the pandemic. It looked very impressive from the outside, and I'm sure it would be a decent visit - but it's a castle - we have plenty of them in this country.
The other big landmark (apart from the cliffs) is the Victorian era South Foreland Lighthouse. When we started walking we saw the lighthouse in the distance and made it the focal point of our walk, circling the building before walking back to the car.
The lighthouse is a stunning white, built in the 19th century but decommissioned in 1988. It was the first lighthouse to use electric lights and while it doesn't work anymore, it fits effortlessly into its surroundings. It's not particularly impressive on its own, but as part of a wider landscape its beauty is more prominent.
The White Cliffs
The big reason for the trip was to see the famous White Cliffs and they didn't disappoint. After paying online for our parking, we followed the path a short distance and could see the White Cliffs almost instantly - you can't miss them.
So why do they exist?
Well, the white colour is the result of the skeletons of thousands of tiny algae that were crushed together over millions of years forming chalk which rises to over 100m high. The cliffs are just as surreal in real life as they were in that book I read so many years ago. There's also large patches of black within the chalk and this is flint which comes from the hardened remains of sea sponges. Yep - you're basically look at death.
The cliffs overlook the English Channel and despite the fact that it constitutes the busiest shipping lane in the world, the water is a brilliant blue that almost merged into the blue sky on the day we visited. On the horizon is France, and the continent of Europe - a whole other culture and a whole other language - tantalisingly close. At 21 miles, the distance to continental Europe is the shortest at this point. In many ways it reminded me of the lookout point in Gibraltar where I could see the shores of Morocco.
The White Cliffs extend for 8 miles on both sides of the town of Dover, and there's plenty of opportunities to experience the chalky white cliffs from different perspectives across the jagged coastline. You can get right to the end of the cliffs and look over but I wouldn't recommend it. Chalk isn't exactly the most stable of substances, and there have been a couple of large breakaways from the cliffside in the past decade.
Where the cliffs jut out, you get to see the rolling green hills, cliffs and shoreline from a slightly different vantage point. If you visit, I'd encourage you to explore all the little side paths. We found a seat near the edge where we were able to relax for a fair while, watching the water and the ferries going past like clockwork.
It's 2 hours outside of London, but the cliffs might as well be on a different planet. There are bright, vivid colours almost everywhere you look. The blue of the water, the white of the cliffs, the green of the grass that extends over the horizon and the blood red of poppies that are growing on the cliff edge.
There's people from all over the world here, I heard accents from India, Spain, the US and Australia, but it didn't feel too busy. During parts of the walk there was hardly anyone around and even when people were around, it was never more than scattered groups.
The path along the cliffside is hilly in places, with some relatively steep climbs - but nothing too tricky or tiresome. The path is cleared and well traced. While birds of prey patrol the Channel, the cliffside has some interesting residents too. Exmoor ponies help 'manage' the reserve by grazing on vegetation and roam around freely.
I found the poppies the most visually striking part of the ecology. You can see the deep red tinge on the cliffside almost as soon as you enter the area, but it gets more impressive the closer you get to it. The red contrasts with the lighter green grass, and the blues from the sea and sky.
However, it seemed no matter how far we walked away from the town, there was a constant background drone of the port in operation and that took a little away from the natural feel.
The walk from the car park to the lighthouse and back along the cliffside took about 2 hours (with a chance to rest and enjoy the views) - and it's honestly a very nice walk. I visited during a perfect day with clear skies, warm temperature a nice light cool breeze and I'm sure that helped form my opinion.
There isn't a whole lot to do, and a few hours in the afternoon felt perfect, but it's an incredible natural wonder. I'm so glad I got to see it, and it's something that I would recommend if you have the opportunity to check it out. The thing is, we are all locked down at the moment, and it's important to get away if you have the time and you're able to afford it. I'm not sure I'd usually recommend a long trip to Dover - but these are unusual times.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.