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Independent shipping news, photography and more from the Dover Strait.
Independent shipping news, photography and more from the Dover Strait.

The White Cliffs of Dover

Welcome to White Cliffs Country, enjoy......

 

 

 

All images on this page and elsewhere on the website are subject to copyright. This requires you to obtain permission to reproduce them before doing so.

Thank you.

A stylised image of the iconic White Cliffs of Dover, seen from the English Channel.

Once immortalised in the words of a song, sung by Dame Vera Lynn, the iconic White Cliffs of Dover rise to their highest point  north east of the port, reaching almost four hundred feet. Facing the Strait of Dover and France they stand as a brooding guardian at the "Gateway to England". Despite the fact that you will not see any blue birds over them, they are arguably one of the most vivid images of the British coastline. During both World Wars they were the last sight that many soldiers saw of their country before giving their lives in the name of democracy, freedom and peace.

 

Here then, on this page, we explore the cliffs a little more closely and find out more about them.

The cliffs at sunset 05.05.14
The cliffs from South Foreland looking west towards the port.

How old are they?

They're old! They are somewhere between 89 and 85 million years old. That's a lot of candles so fortunately we don't celebrate their birthday!

 

What are they made of? 

The cliffs are composed of chalk. Without getting too technical, chalk is basically calcium carbonate formed from billions of microscopic sea creatures whose skeletal remains sank to the bottom of the English Channel during the Cretaceous period of geological history. Together with the remains of other sea creatures the resulting sediment eventually formed the substance we now call chalk. 

 

How come they are now cliffs and not still the seabed?

Towards the end of the Cretaceous period sea levels were significantly higher, some estimates state that they could have been up to 200 metres higher. This, together with tectonic uplift activity caused by the coming together of the European and African tectonic plates caused the seabed to be violently thrust upwards creating the stunning white cliffs we see today. The same geological process also created the European Alps.

 

Are they just chalk?

No, the chalk cliffs contain seams of dark coloured flint nodules, many of which form the heavily sea sculptured pebbles on the beach at the base of the cliffs. In addition they contain fossils and sometimes quartz together with Iron Pyrites known as "Fools Gold".

 

Can I get close to them?

Yes. you can! The White Cliffs are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and are looked after by the National Trust. You can park your car at the visitor centre at Langdon and enjoy breathtaking views across the English Channel as you walk to the lighthouse at South Foreland.

Just don't stand too near the edge!

For an even better view, book a trip out with Dover Sea Safari to really appreciate their sheer size and beauty.

 

 


Seams of dark flint nodules in stark contrast to the white chalk.
Flint nodules in close up.
The sun breaks through the clouds in this typically moody view from the cliffs.

During the night of the 15th and 16th of March 2012, the cliffs suffered one of the largest cliff falls in many years. Thousands of tonnes of chalk fell into the sea. Over the next few weeks the sea around the fall was a milky white colour as it took back what was once hers. Small cliff falls occur fairly regularly, but this was a big one. The cliffs being constantly eroded by wind, rain and tide.

Cliff fall March 2012.

Smugglers, Searchlights and Shipwrecks!

 

The picture above shows Langdon Bay just a little to the east of the port. At first glance it appears to be just another view of the white cliffs, but let's have a closer look. One thing we can't see is the wreck of the steamship Falcon which is visible from the cliffs at low tide. Can you see the winding zigzag path that descends the steep cliffs down to the beach? At the very bottom there is a set of metal steps down to the shore. Before you get to it however, you have to walk through the old searchlight batteries used to shine out a stab of light to identify ships during the war. They are visible lower left in the image. Before this, smugglers used the path to haul away their ill gotten gains and escape the attention of the Revenue Men. The Revenue Men were the predecessors of today's Coastguard Service.

 

 

A closer view of the searchlight battery, the path to which has now collapsed and it is no longer safe to access the beach from the clifftop.
A large gouge cut into the cliff face, where Smuggler's booty was hauled up the cliff. It is also said that pianos salvaged from the wreck of the Preussen were hoisted to safety here too.

The wreck of the Falcon seen from the cliffs. More information can be found about her on the features page of this website.

This view clearly shows a large section of the cliff which has sloughed downwards and will eventually be reclaimed by the sea.

The National Trust looks after this stretch of our coastline which forms part of the North Downs Way and also the Saxon Shore Way. Both are important trails that are rich in history spanning over 2000 years of more recent history since the formation of the cliffs. The National Trust is also responsible for the upkeep of the South Foreland Lighthouse which is open to the public (see below).

The South Foreland Lighthouse undergoing maintenance in 2014. Decommisioned in 1988 it is rich in history, most notably this is where Guglielmo Marconi persevered with his experiments using radio waves. Indeed this is where he received the first international radio transmission from the cliffs of Wimereux across the channel in France. Also the first ship to shore distress radio transmission took place here from the East Goodwin Lightship. The tearoom is excellent too! A welcome stopover for weary walkers! 

The National Trust Visitor Centre at Langdon Cliff under a forboding sky.
The centre has panoramic views of the English Channel, good parking facilities, oh, and a tea shop too!
Breathtaking views of the busy port and across the channel to France.
Detail from one of the many comprehensive information display panels to help you make the most of your visit.

One of the reasons this area is designated as an SSSI is the diversity of the flora and fauna. Many species thrive here despite the hostile seasonal climate. Sea Kale, Orchids, Cowslips and many more can be seen flourishing along the cliffs.

Sea Kale, a member of the Cabbage family.
A wind blown shrub on the clifftop. It isn't difficult to work out the direction of the prevailing wind!
Exmoor ponies now graze the clifftop and help to keep down unwanted and invasive species of plants. They are a hardy breed, particularly well suited to the environment here.
Sturdy, handsome creatures, although I don't think this chap appreciated having his photo taken!

The rugged and craggy cliff face provides the ideal nesting and roosting place for many seabirds and other breeds too. Apart from the Herring Gull, Black Headed Gulls and Kittiwakes make their homes in the cracks, crevices and ledges along the cliffs. They are joined by opportunist hunters including the Kestrel and on occasion it is possible to spot a Buzzard circling overhead or the flash of a hunting Peregrine Falcon. In recent years Ravens have also returned to nest here. Badgers, Foxes and Rabbits also have homes here. They are joined by smaller mammals such as Field Mice and Voles who seek refuge from the razor sharp eyes of their airborne hunters. Moths, Butterflies and Insects complete the selection of wildlife. There is always something to see.

The afternoon sunshine emphasises the beauty of the White Cliffs of Dover.
The cliffs and foreshore at low tide.

Useful details:

 

National Trust Langdon Cliff Visitor Centre, Upper Road, Dover CT16 1HJ

01304 207326

 

National Trust South Foreland Lighthouse, The Front, St Margarets Bay CT15 6HP

01304 852463

 

Marina Travel Cliff Tours & Beyond

07703659747 

 

Dover Sea Safari, Dover Sea Sports Centre, Esplanade, Dover CT17 9FS

01304 212880

 

See you soon, enjoy your visit!

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