Walking the chalk: the White Cliffs of Dover

Whether you’re sailing across the channel from Calais or standing on the chalky grassland above the bustling port of Dover, the sight of the White Cliffs is sure to provoke strong emotions. They have acted as an age-old geological frontier between the British Isles and the continental mainland, and for many people they are an important symbol of our national heritage.

View over the port of Dover from the White Cliffs. © Howard Bristol

View over the port of Dover from the White Cliffs. ©Howard Bristol

So when a section of the iconic White Cliffs came up for sale in 2012, the National Trust launched an appeal to purchase the land and keep it open for everyone to enjoy. The appeal was a roaring success, with the cliffs coming under National Trust management last November. A few weeks ago, I went down to Dover to see for myself what difference the acquisition has made.

Walking along the cliff tops from Fox Hill Down to the South Foreland lighthouse, there’s little sign of the excitement of last summer’s campaign. Only an unobtrusive new gate marks the boundary between land the National Trust already managed and the stretch of cliffs bought last year. But when I asked Gareth Wiltshire, Visitor Experience Manager at the White Cliffs, what change the appeal has made, he explained that the absence of bells and whistles was all part of the positive impact.

“By buying the land,” Gareth said, “we can ensure that the White Cliffs remain a wild and open space for forever, for everyone”.

View from South Foreland Lighthouse. © Howard Bristol

View from South Foreland Lighthouse. ©Howard Bristol

As I walked over the chalk grassland with Rob Sonnen, Ranger for the White Cliffs, I discovered that as well as being a national icon and full of history, the White Cliffs also create a highly specialised habitat for rare wild flowers, butterflies and other insects. The life cycle of the Adonis Blue butterfly is particularly interesting; it lays its eggs on Horseshoe Vetch, but it also has a special relationship with red and black ants, which bury and protect the larvae.

Of course, this highlights that access isn’t the only benefit of the acquisition. Since the new section of cliffs was purchased, the National Trust has begun to manage the land in a much more ecologically friendly way, making more space for insects such as the Adonis Blue where it is pushed out by intensive farming elsewhere. Rob explained that some areas of the cliff tops are now grazed by exmoor ponies, while others are tenant-grazed and mosaic-mowed.

“This creates niches with different structures of grassland, shrubs, and trees of different ages. We’re trying to create as diverse a habitat as possible, which will then give us diverse wildlife,” Rob said.

Early Spider orchid. ©National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

Early Spider orchid.
©National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

If you time your visit right, Rob told me, you can catch a glimpse of a number of orchids, including the Pyramidal and Early Spider orchids. But even if you don’t catch sight of these as you walk east from the White Cliffs visitor centre, your eyes will have plenty to feast on if you indulge in high tea at Mrs. Knott’s tea room at South Foreland lighthouse.

View from South Foreland Lighthouse. © Howard Bristol

View from South Foreland Lighthouse. ©Howard Bristol

My visit to the White Cliffs was only short, but it certainly highlighted that the National Trust’s coastal work is long-lasting. As Gareth put it, “It’s been a fantastic year for us. To move from trying to save the land to seeing it start to change has been a wonderful experience.”

  • Howard Bristol is the National Trust’s Media & External Affairs intern, working on the Neptune Coastline Campaign. You can read more about the National Trust’s coastal work on our website.
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