diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 23, 2014

Yesterday I went for a walk in the English Channel. Or somewhere that used to be the English Channel until one of Britain's biggest engineering projects turned up and created dry land out of the sea. That'll be the digging of the Channel Tunnel, whose construction created millions of tons of spoil, all of which had to go somewhere. Five million ended up being dumped just offshore near Dover, close to the point where the Tunnel finally dips beneath the Channel. Steel piles were used to enclose a long thin rectangle in the sea which was slowly filled, then used as an additional worksite, and eventually seeded with grass after the Tunnel was complete. That was in 1994, and the site was opened to the public as a nature reserve a few years later. It's called Samphire Hoe, and it's a pretty unique place to visit.

You'll see the Hoe if you travel by train between Folkestone and Dover. The railway passes beneath the white cliffs through two tunnels, but emerges inbetween at a mile-long gap blown up by gunpowder in the 1840s. In 1881 an attempt was made to dig a Channel Tunnel from approximately this point, but it barely made half a mile before the money ran out. Nip ahead to 1895 and a colliery was opened here, accessible only by train or via a precipitous zigzag down the cliff face. Another attempt at a Channel Tunnel was made in 1974, with an access road bored down through the chalk to reach the water's edge, but that was cancelled after only 300m. The access road looked useful though and got reused by EuroTunnel, and it's still the only way down to Samphire Hoe today.

Most people drive. The tunnel entrance is just off the A20, a mile outside Dover, rather than in the centre of town. But it's perfectly possible to walk, and it's a mighty splendid walk if you choose to follow the start of the North Downs Way. This ascends to the Napoleonic fort at Western Heights, a fascinating place to explore in its own right, then descends a cowpat-strewn hillside to the estate at Aycliffe. Follow the subway and climb the path on the other side to rise to the top of Shakespeare Cliff. This is one of the bands of white you can see when approaching Dover by ferry, though up top the chalkface is almost entirely hidden. Instead a grassy slope slants down at a geologically-important angle, a quite stunning place to stand, and one of my favourite places along the south coast. Continue along the clifftop, attempting to stay away from the edge, until a squat brick tower appears by the path. This is a Victorian ventilation tower for the railway below - there are a few more across the field alongside. Turn right here, keeping to the right of the barbed wire fence, to walk down to the cycleway and the very-obvious entrance to Samphire Hoe's entrance tunnel close by.

It's a single track tunnel, thanks to a pavement/cycleway all the way down, so it may take a few minutes for the traffic lights to turn green before you join the next convoy heading down. Headlights on, it's dark in here, or a three minute walk for those on foot. The tunnel comes out near one end of the rail tunnel, and also next to a securely protected EuroTunnel building. This is a ventilation unit for the tunnels below, and features approximately forty giant fans spinning in harmony. That's best seen from above, so hurry by, because the main chunk of nature reserve lies ahead.

There are two car parks, both circular, alongside a small visitors centre. Don't expect much in the way of facilities, only some toilets and a place for leaflets, plus a small kiosk from which minor refreshments are dispensed. I considered getting a tea, except the man behind the glass was too busy checking the racing form in his newspaper to notice, so my 90p went unspent. Instead I wandered off to investigate what looked like a peculiar lighthouse, but was in fact art - the Samphire Tower. Step inside to hear sounds from the locality such as waves and birds and trains, the trick to kick things off being to fiddle with the telescope.

A lot of people come to Samphire Hoe to walk along the sea wall. This is about 2km long and flat, which is ideal for leading a dog or perhaps a small child from one end to the other. Dogs have to be kept on leads, because there are a few sheep around, whereas toddlers can be allowed to run free because a large concrete barrier protects them from the waves. One direction's a dead end, just to warn you, stopping at a warning sign immediately beneath the cliff face. What this means is lots of bits of chalk lying around, which provides the perfect opportunity for certain visitors to scrawl graffiti on the concrete walls, mostly of the [insert name] woz here kind.

But you don't want to walk along the entire sea wall, you want to explore the centre of Samphire Hoe instead because that's rather more interesting. This is where the grassland is, still a fairly harsh environment even after 20 years, but a few plants have clung on and started to colonise. Sea buckthorn for one, and apparently coltsfoot except it's too early in the year to spot that flowering. The land's not flat but undulates, allowing pools of water to collect in various locations. A couple of paths meander up and down and round, with signs helpfully warning those in wheelchairs when the gradient's likely to be fractionally too much for them.

And all the time the White Cliffs of Dover loom down from the northern flank. They don't erode so much here, protected by the railway and the Hoe, so vegetation is slowly turning parts of the sheer slopes green. The North Downs Way heads across the top, from which the very best view of Samphire Hoe can be seen, but you won't get up there quickly or easily. Instead enjoy the imposing setting down below and the opportunity to wander to and fro before heading back to the car, or trooping back up the tunnel to rejoin the real world...

...or, when you get to the far end of Samphire Hoe, step down onto the beach and keep going. It's a bit pebbly, as you might expect, and a reminder of what the foreshore would have looked like before the Hoe was built. I kept going for about half a mile, drawn by the sight of a mammoth rockfall ahead. Part of Abbot's Cliff collapsed last weekend, undercut by waves from recent storms, and depositing a huge amount of rock across the beach. It's spread far further than you might expect from gravity, poured out in a fan to create an elevated platform above the waves. A separate fall alongside has started to yellow, but the fresh fall is still a gleaming white, almost untainted by the elements. The chunks vary in size from suitcase down to pebble, and can be clambered over like some sort of lunar landscape. The chalk's much softer than I was expecting, very easily dented by another rock, but still leaves that familiar white residue on your hands and feet. It was great to have arrived so soon after a major collapse, if only to be reminded first hand of the endless cycle of destruction wreaked by waves upon the land. And also a strong reminder not to walk too close to the edge of a chalk cliff, be that down the bottom or across the top, while the legacy of 2014's wild wet winter continues.

» Fifteen photos from yesterday, from west of Dover
» Lots of people's photos of Samphire Hoe

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