diamond geezer

 Monday, February 13, 2006

A Grand Day Out: Dover (part 2)

A walk along the White Cliffs
As English icons go, they don't come much bigger than the White Cliffs of Dover. Up to 100 metres tall in places, towering above the Channel and visible for miles. We take chalk cliffs for granted on the southern and eastern coasts of England, but globally they're actually surprisingly rare. The only other chalk cliffs outside the UK are to be found across the Channel in Normandy and near Calais, and on the two Baltic islands of Mon and RĂ¼gen. The very best place to see the white cliffs of Dover is from a passing boat. However, in the absence of marine transport, I decided instead to view them from above and set off on a two mile trek east along the clifftops. To the lighthouse.

It was quite some climb up to the summit of the cliffs from harbour level, or at least it was on foot. Lazier or less able visitors were able to drive direct to a clifftop carpark sponsored by Saga Holidays, which perhaps suggested that walking conditions weren't going to be especially strenuous. It certainly looked easy to walk from the car park to the visitor centre, or to amble along the nearby flat footpaths, but further east the ground looked rather more undulating. Indeed, just beyond the coastguard station anybody in stilettos would be in real trouble and sensible walking shoes were de rigeur. Nevertheless the initial view was excellent, both along the coastline and out to sea across the docks. Several people were stood with binoculars poised, scrutinising the passing shipping (of which there was plenty). Dog walkers were also out in force, although to my great surprise I never quite saw any yappy mongrels scampering over the cliff edge to their death.

In this Health and Safety conscious age, it was refreshing to see that nobody has yet erected luminous orange safety barriers along the edge of the cliffs. You can walk right up to the brink and look down at the sheer chalk beneath, if you so wish. Visitors are, however, recommended to keep at least five metres from the cliff edge just in case the rock decides that, after 70 million years in situ, today is the day to crumble spectacularly into the sea below. On average the shoreline retreats approximately 50cm each year, but in reality rockfalls tend to be rarer and more spectacular than this average might suggest. I was brave enough to venture up close anyway, and the fact that I'm still here today to post the photographs I took suggests that my risk analysis was well judged. Bloody fantastic views they were too.

The further I got from the car park, the smaller the crowds of fellow ramblers became. The footpath curved and climbed before descending again across another sinking valley. At one point narrow steps dropped almost vertically down the chalkface to Langdon Bay beneath, where one matchstick sized couple seemed to be enjoying the remote solitude of the wafer-thin pebbly beach. Back up top a handful of windswept trees thrust their stunted branches defiantly offshore, while grassy shoots pushed bravely up above the chalky soil to semi-cover a fallow field. And all the time, out on the horizon across the sea, there was France. Or maybe it was just a deep grey cloudbank, it was hard to be sure. I suspect the walk is rather more hospitable in midsummer, but even on a cold sunny day the experience was quite magical. And then there was the lighthouse...

South Foreland Lighthouse
Just off the east coast of Kent, just below the waters of the English Channel, lie the treacherous Goodwin Sands. Hundreds of ships have foundered here over the centuries, so the nearby coast was a natural location for a lighthouse as early as 1499. The present South Foreland Lighthouse dates back to 1691, extended to its current height in 1890, and boasts several world-beating firsts:
the first lighthouse to be lit by electric light [Michael Faraday, 1858]
the first ship-to-shore radio transmission (from the South Goodwin lightship) [Marconi, Xmas Eve 1898]
the first ship-to-shore radio distress call (from the South Goodwin lightship) [Marconi, April 1899]
the first international radio transmission (to Wimeraux, France) [Marconi, March 1899]
the last UK lighthouse to be fully automated [Trinity House, 1998]

Today the South Foreland Lighthouse is owned by the National Trust, whose volunteers seemed very pleased to see me on Saturday and to show me around. I guess that, being in such a remote clifftop location some distance from the nearest public car park, they were glad of every visitor they could get. My guide was extremely knowledgeable (or else had been busy learning all the relevant facts over the winter break). He explained in detail how the lighthouse had been powered, enthused over an original 3KW light bulb and also demonstrated the intricate mechanism used to rotate the optic in the lantern room (recently restored). From the roof I could see down into the nearby village of St Margaret's (where Noel Coward and Ian Fleming once lived), but I decided that was too far to venture on today's journey. Having reached the very south-easternmost tip of the British mainland, I retraced my steps back along the clifftops to Dover. Absolutely knackering, but absolutely worth it.

www.flickr.com : Day out in Dover
(the town, the castle, the port, the cliffs and the lighthouse)

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