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The White Cliffs of Dover are one of those archetypal, iconic images of Britain: and rightly so, as Dover has been a place of comings and goings for time immemorial (Romans contemplated landing here, but decided against it; Lancelot travelled form here onto his exile, and millions of hopeful immigrants and thirsty day-shoppers leave and arrive via Dover every day).
I have to confess to having a bit of a thing for cliffs. I grew up on a coast, but it was the Baltic coats of Poland, of which the vast majority is sandy beach, and the cliffs - as few and far between as they are - are earth cliffs. So a proper rocky shore has always held a fascination for me: it started with the Sussex coast, Beachy Head and Seven Sisters when we lived in Brighton, and during over two years in Dover I fell in love with the White Cliffs.
The name refers to the whole expanse of the white chalk studded with black flint that stretches on both sides of Dover. Technically, the cliffs above and to the east of the ferry port are known as the Langdon Cliffs, further east past the village of St Margaret we have St Margaret Cliffs, while the - perhaps more dramatic - cliff west of the town towards Folkestone is the Shakespeare Cliff.
Those coming and going via the Dover ferry link can see the cliffs from the distance, but for anybody living or staying in Dover, the cliffs offer a fantastic opportunity to walk and explore.
Large parts of the East Cliffs are a protected site, owned by National Trust, who maintain a car park and a visitors' centre at the Dover end of the area.
You can get there either by driving (the car park has a charge for non-members) or by taking any bus to the ferry terminal and walking up a rather long flight of steps cum walking path. This is quite a slog, and steep in places, as the clifftop is approximately 100m above the sea level, but in a way it's a more satisfying way to reach the cliffs: you feel greatly rewarded when the path starts levelling and you get first glimpses of the marvellous views.
The views is really what the White Cliffs is all about: down and west to the ferry port, across the Channel to France and the cape Gris Nez, at the sea to watch the shipping, directly down to the strip of beach and rocks at the bottom of the cliff, across the countryside to the next valley and towards the lighthouse.
The National Trust visitors' centre blends quite well into the landscape and offers a cafe, shop, toilets and a car park. Many people seem satisfied with taking camping chairs out of the boot and sitting on them literally in front of their vehicles, gazing at the sea and the ferries: but this seems a terrible waste of such a beautiful site, as even just five minutes down the (reasonably flat) path you can loose the cars from sight and do the same sitting and gazing in a much more pleasant environment.
Anybody even half-fit should, however, consider walking at least part of the cliff-top path. A lot of it is fairly level (though there is a noticeable dip and then an uphill bit within the first mile), and it's only about four miles from the Dover end to the village of St Margaret's at Cliffe, with the gleaming-white, picture-perfect South Foreland lighthouse closer to St Margaret's end. If you are parked at the visitors centre, and don't feel up to the full circular walk, go to the lighthouse and back to avoid having to take a bus back from St Margaret's (although it's a lovely spot itself).
It's mostly an open headland and it can get very windy: if your ears at in the slightest bit sensitive, do bring a headband or earplugs.
The path follows the shore-line, more or less, but usually stays far away from the drop to be reasonably self even for smaller children. I would probably want to keep toddlers on lead.
The walk is very rewarding with views changing quite dramatically as you progress: different aspects of the coast, sea and land appear and alter shape. The headland itself has a natural, wild quality that is very rare in England, where so much of the countryside has been cultivated for centuries. One tends to imagine that it was exactly the same thousands of years ago, where local inhabitants gathered flint for their axes and scrapers round here: the place feels ancient, untouched by the last two thousand years of civilisation.
This is illusory, to large extent, as the wilds of the White Cliffs are very much managed. There is an area of farmed land, and Shetland ponies graze on the grass to keep it in check. I love the un-grazed tufty patches, springy and so comfortable to lie down upon.
Flora (and, less visibly, fauna) of the White Cliffs is apparently very special, with unique species aplenty. I know almost nothing about botany, and thus just enjoyed the wild flowers without trying to identify or name any of them, but wild orchids, poppies, cornflowers and wild cabbage are very much in evidence.
The South Foreland Lighthouse is a striking landmark, about two-thirds of the way between Dover and St Margaret; gleaming white and picture-pretty. It's also a National Trust property, open to visitors for even better view across the Channel and displays of mechanisms. It was from there that Marconi conducted some of his first transmissions. It has somewhat haphazard opening times outside the school holiday period, so check before setting of if you are very keen to enter (£4 admission).
The the western part of the White Cliffs is similar, but I always found it, for some reason, less rewarding, even though the sharp tooth of the Shakespeare Cliff (the Chunnel runs underneath, as does the train line from Dover to Folkestone) is very dramatic.
Considered one of England's most famous natural landmarks, the White Cliffs are a protected site and one can fine rare flora and fauna. Enjoy the spectacular coastal view.