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Coordinates: 51°08′N 1°22′E / 51.14°N 1.37°E / 51.14; 1.37

The White Cliffs of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover are cliffs that form part of the English coastline facing the Strait of Dover and France. The cliffs are part of the North Downs formation. The cliff face, which reaches up to 350 feet (110 m), owes its striking appearance to its composition of chalk accented by streaks of black flint. The cliffs stretch along the coastline for eight miles (13 km), spreading east and west from the town of Dover in Kent, and part of them were purchased by the National Trust in 2016.[1] They are part of the Dover to Kingsdown Cliffs Site of Special Scientific Interest[2] and Special Area of Conservation[3]


Location and historyEdit

Strait of Dover
The location and extent of the White Cliffs of Dover.

The cliffs are located along the coastline of England between approximately 51°06′N 1°14′E / 51.100°N 1.233°E / 51.100; 1.233 and 51°12′N 1°24′E / 51.200°N 1.400°E / 51.200; 1.400.It marks the point where Great Britain most closely approaches continental Europe and on a clear day the cliffs are easily visible from the French coast. The chalk cliffs of the Alabaster Coast of Normandy, France, are part of the same geological system as Dover's cliffs.

The cliffs have great symbolic value in Britain because they face towards continental Europe across the narrowest part of the English Channel, where invasions have historically threatened and against which the cliffs form a symbolic guard. The National Trust calls the cliffs "an icon of Britain", with "the white chalk face a symbol of home and war time defence."[4] Because crossing at Dover was the primary route to the continent before the advent of air travel, the white line of cliffs also formed the first or last sight of Britain for travellers. In World War II, thousands of allied troops on the little ships in the Dunkirk evacuation saw the welcoming sight of the cliffs.[5] During the summer of 1940, reporters gathered at Shakespeare Cliff to watch aerial dogfights between German and British aircraft during the Battle of Britain.[6]l

The White Cliffs are at one end of the Kent Downs designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.[7] In 1999 a sustainable National Trust visitor centre was built in the area. The Gateway building was designed by van Heyningen and Haward Architects and houses a restaurant, an information centre on the work of the National Trust, and details of local archaeology, history and landscape.[8]


The white cliffs of Dover seen across the channel from Cap Gris Nez, France. The layers of flint embedded in the chalk match on both sides, showing that in prehistoric times a land connection existed between England and France

Around seventy million years ago Great Britain and much of Europe was submerged under a great sea. The sea bottom was made of a white mud formed from fragments of coccoliths, the skeletons of tiny algae which floated in the surface waters of the sea and then sank to the bottom during the Cretaceous period and together with the remains of bottom-living creatures, formed muddy sediments. It is thought that the sediments were deposited very slowly, probably only half a millimetre a year, equivalent to about 180 coccoliths piled one on top of another. Still, up to 500 metres of sediments were deposited in some areas.[9] Through the weight of overlying sediments, the deposits eventually became consolidated into chalk.[10]

Cliffs, showing multiple layers of flint

Later earth movements related to the formation of the Alps raised these former sea-floor deposits above sea level and until the end of the last glacial period the British Isles were part of continental Europe, linked by the unbroken Weald-Artois Anticline, a ridge that acted as a natural dam holding back a large freshwater pro-glacial lake, now submerged under the North Sea. The two land masses remained connected until between 450,000 and 180,000 years ago when at least two catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods breached the anticline destroying the ridge that connected Britain to Europe, although a land connection across the southern North Sea would have existed intermittently at later times when periods of glaciation resulted in lowering of sea levels.[11] At the end of the last glacial period around 10,000 years ago, rising sea levels finally severed the last land connection.[12]

Evidence of erosion along the cliff top

The above photo of the face of the cliffs shows horizontal bands of dark-coloured flint in the chalk deposits of the cliffs. The flint is composed of the remains of sea sponges and siliceous planktonic micro-organisms which hardened into the microscopic quartz crystals which constitute flint. The quartz silica also filled cavities left by dead marine creatures which are now found as flint fossils, especially the internal moulds of Micraster echinoids. Several different ocean floor species such as brachiopods, bivalves, crinoids, sponges and others, as well as shark teeth can also be found in the chalk deposits.[13]

In some areas layers of a soft, grey chalk known as a hardground complex can be seen. Hardgrounds are thought to reflect disruptions in the steady accumulation of sediment during which times sedimentation ceased and/or the loose surface sediments were stripped away by currents or slumping, exposing the older hardened chalk sediment. A single hardground may have been exhumed 16 or more times before the sediments were compacted and hardened (lithified) to form chalk.[14]

The cliff face continues to weather at an average rate of 1 centimetre (0.4 in) per year, although occasionally large pieces will fall. This occurred in 2001, when a large chunk of the edge, as large as a football pitch, fell into the Channel.[15] A further large section collapsed into the Channel on 15 March 2012.[16] Visitors are, therefore, urged to remain well away from the cliff edge.


Exmoor ponies in their native habitat

The chalk grassland environment on the land surface above the cliffs provides an excellent environment for many species of wild flowers, butterflies and birds and has been designated a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Rangers and volunteers work to clear invasive plants that threaten to invade the native flora. A grazing programme involving Exmoor ponies has been established to help to clear out the faster-growing invasive plants, allowing smaller, less robust native plants to survive. [17] These hardy ponies have been managed by organisations such as the National Trust, Natural England, and County Wildlife Trusts to maintain vegetation on nature reserves. [18]

Horseshoe Vetch, the sole food for the Adonis blue butterfly
Chalk Hill Blue, male
Chalk Hill Blue, female

Among the wildflowers on the cliffs there is a surprising variety of orchids, the most nationally rare being the Early Spider Orchid with yellow-green to brownish green petals and a flower that looks like the body of a large spider. Similar in appearance but from a different family is the Oxtongue Broomrape with yellow, white, or blue snapdragon-like flowers. The cliffs are home to 90 percent of the UKs population of Oxtongue broomrape, an unusual plant in that it lives on the roots of a host plant. Viper's-bugloss, a showy plant in vivid shades of blue and purple with red stamens, also grows along the cliffs.[19] In King Lear Shakespeare mentions an edible plant, rock samphire, that grows on the cliffs and was once collected by gatherers hanging down on ropes: Half-way down Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade! (Act IV, Scene VI). This refers to the dangers involved in collecting rock samphire on sea cliffs.

The abundance of wildflowers provides a home for around 30 different species of butterflies. A rare butterfly, the Adonis blue, can be seen in spring and again in the fall. Males have vibrant blue wings which are lined with a white margin, whereas the females are a rich chocolate brown. This species needs the plant Horseshoe Vetch and a certain kind of red ant to survive. It overwinters as a green and yellow-striped caterpillar, a coloring which camouflages it while it feeds on vetch. When it is ready to pupate, it searches for ants to 'milk' its sugary secretions. In April-May and July-August the caterpillar forms into a chrysalis in a small crevice and it is then buried by the ants in chambers connected to their nest. The ants then care for it for around three weeks, protecting it from predators until it is ready to emerge as a butterfly.[20] Similar in appearance but more abundant is the Chalk Hill Blue. It is a specialist to chalk grassland and can be seen in July and August.[21][22] Threatened species include the Silver Spotted Skipper and Straw Belle Moth. The well known Red Admiral can be seen from February through November. The Marbled white, black and white with a white wing border, can be seen from June to August.

Peregrine off White Cliffs, Dover

The cliffs are popular for many migratory birds, being the first landing point for species flying inland from the English Channel. After a 120-year absence, in 2009 it was reported that ravens had returned to the cliffs. Similar in appearance but smaller, the jackdaw is abundant. The rarest of birds that live along the cliff is the peregrine falcon. They can reach a hunting dive of 200mph, the fastest animal in the world. In recent decline and endangered, the skylark also makes its home on the cliffs.[23] The cliffs are also home to the fulmar which resemble gulls and colonies of black-legged kittiwake a species of gulls. Although the well known wartime song "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover" mentions bluebirds flying over the cliffs of Dover, bluebirds are an American species that do not make their home in Europe. However, bluebird is an old country name for swallows and house martins which do make an annual migration to the continent, with many crossing the channel at least twice a year and spending the summer in the vicinity of Dover.


White Cliffs below Dover Castle
Samphire Hoe

Dover castleEdit

Dover Castle is a medieval castle founded in the 11th century and has been described as the "Key to England" due to its defensive significance throughout history.[24][25] It is the largest castle in England.[26]

Samphire Hoe Country ParkEdit

Samphire Hoe Country Park is a nature reserve situated on a new piece of land created by the earth excavated during the construction of the Channel Tunnel. It covers a 30-hectare site at the foot Shakespeare Cliff, between Dover and Folkestone. There is an education shelter with a classroom and exhibition area. Staff and volunteers are available to answer questions and provide information about the wildlife in the reserve. The building's design incorporates eco-construction criteria.

Dover MuseumEdit

Dover Museum was founded in 1836. Shelled from France in 1942 during the Second World War, the Museum lost much of its collections, including nearly all of its natural history collections. Much of the surviving material was left neglected in caves and other stores until 1946. In 1948 a 'temporary' museum was opened and in 1991 a new museum building of three stories (built behind the Museum's original Victorian facade) was opened. In 1999, a new gallery on the Museum's second floor centred on the Dover Bronze Age Boat was opened.[27]

South Foreland LighthouseEdit

South Foreland lighthouse

South Foreland Lighthouse is a Victorian era lighthouse on the South Foreland in St. Margaret's Bay, which was once used to warn ships approaching the nearby Goodwin Sands. Goodwin Sands is a 10-mile (16 km) long sandbank at the southern end of the North Sea lying 6 miles (10 km) off the Deal coast. The area consists of a layer of approximately 25 m (82 ft) depth of fine sand resting on a chalk platform belonging to the same geological feature that incorporates the White Cliffs of Dover. More than 2,000 ships are believed to have been wrecked upon the Goodwin Sands because they lie close to the major shipping lanes through the Straits of Dover. It went out of service in 1988 and is currently owned by the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty.

In song and literatureEdit

  • Vera Lynn, known as "The Forces Sweetheart" for her 1942 wartime classic "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover", celebrated her 100th birthday in 2017. That year she led a campaign for donations to buy 700,000 sqm of land atop Dover's cliffs when it was feared that they may be sold to developers. The campaign met its target after only three weeks. The National Trust, which owns the surrounding areas, plans to return the land to a natural state of chalk grassland and preserve existing military structures from World War II.[28]
  • In 1867, English poet Matthew Arnold wrote the poem Dover Beach eptimising the beauty of the Kent coast.
The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits:- on the French coast, the light
Gleams, and is gone: the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.[29]
  • The most famous reference in English literature to the White Cliffs is in Shakespeare's King Lear, Act IV, Scene I. Edgar persuades the blinded Earl of Gloucester that he is at the edge of a cliff in Dover. Gloucester says "There is cliff, whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep: Bring me to the very brim of it." Edgar fools the Gloucester into thinking he is at the cliff edge and describes the scene: "Here's the place! - stand still - how fearful/ And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eye so low [...] half way down/Hangs one that gathers samphire: dreadful trade!/Methinks he seems no bigger than his head."[30]
Samphire is a wild edible plant that grew on the cliffs and was gathered by hanging from ropes over the cliff's edge at that time. "Shakespeare Cliff" was named after the reference.
"The first land we sighted was called the Dodman,
Next Rame Head off Plymouth, off Portsmouth the Wight;
We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover,
And then we bore up for the South Foreland light."
  • On a Piece of Chalk was a lecture by Thomas Henry Huxley presented to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1868 and published later that year.[32] The piece reconstructs the geological history of Great Britain from a simple piece of chalk and demonstrates science as "organized common sense".[33]
  • Crossover was a single by the Hip Hop group EPMD, with a reference in the third to last verse which goes "From the US to the white cliffs of Dover, strictly underground funk, keep the crossover".

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ "White cliffs of Dover to be bought by National Trust". BBC. Retrieved 1 December 2016. 
  2. ^ "Designated Sites View: Dover to Kingsdown Cliffs". Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Natural England. Retrieved 1 February 2018. 
  3. ^ "Designated Sites View: Dover to Kingsdown Cliffs". Special Area of Conservation. Natural England. Retrieved 15 January 2018. 
  4. ^ "The White Cliffs of Dover". The National Trust. 1 November 2016. 
  5. ^ Wijs-Reed, Jocelyn (2012). I've Walked My Own Talk. Partridge Publishing. p. 212. 
  6. ^ Sperber, A. M. (1998). Murrow, His Life and Times. Fordham University Press. p. 161. ISBN 0-8232-1881-3. 
  7. ^ Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, The White Cliffs Countryside Partnership, retrieved 25 October 2012.
  8. ^ Susan Dawson, Visitor Centre, White Cliffs of Dover van Heyningen & Haward Architects, Architects' Journal, 27 May 1999 (subscription required).
  9. ^ "White Cliffs of Dover Discover The White Cliffs". The Dover Museum. 
  10. ^ The Royal Institution (December 5, 2012). "Helen Czerski - Coccolithophores and Calcium". YouTube. Retrieved July 15, 2017. 
  11. ^ Professor Bryony Coles. "The Doggerland project". University of Exeter. Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  12. ^ Harris, C.S. "Chalk facts". Geology Shop. 
  13. ^ Shepard, Roy. "Discovering Fossils - Introducing the Paleontology of Great Britiani". Discovering Fossils. Retrieved November 10, 2017. 
  14. ^ Shepard, Roy. "Discovering Fossils - Introducing the Paleontology of Great Britiani". Discovering Fossils. Retrieved November 10, 2017. 
  15. ^ Beard, Matthew (1 February 2001). "White cliffs of Dover go crashing into the Channel". The Independent. Retrieved 2010-04-18. 
  16. ^ "BBC News - White Cliffs of Dover suffer large collapse". BBC News. 15 March 2012. 
  17. ^ "National Trust at The White Cliffs of Dover". Kent Life. Retrieved November 10, 2017. 
  18. ^ "Map of UK Conservation Grazing Schemes". Grazing Animals Project. 18 April 2012. Retrieved 15 May 2012. 
    "Wildlife Conservation of Local Downland and Heathland". Sussex Pony Grazing and Conservation Trust. Retrieved 15 May 2012. 
    "Grazing Exmoor ponies to protect County Durham flowers". BBC News. 8 March 2011. Retrieved 15 May 2012. 
  19. ^ "Cliff Top Wildlife". The National Trust. Retrieved November 9, 2017. 
  20. ^ Butterfly Conservation. Adonis Blue Retrieved November 10, 2017.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  21. ^ Brereton, Tom M.; Warren, Martin S.; Roy, David B.; Stewart, Katherine (2007-07-20). "The changing status of the Chalkhill Blue butterfly Polyommatus coridon in the UK: the impacts of conservation policies and environmental factors". Journal of Insect Conservation. 12 (6): 629–638. doi:10.1007/s10841-007-9099-0. ISSN 1366-638X. 
  22. ^ "Cliff Top Wildlife". The National Trust. Retrieved November 9, 2017. 
  23. ^ "Cliff Top Wildlife". The National Trust. Retrieved November 9, 2017. 
  24. ^ Kerr, Nigel (1984). A Guide to Norman Sites in Britain. Granada. p. 44. ISBN 0-586-08445-2. 
  25. ^ Broughton, Bradford B. (1988). Dictionary of Medieval Knighthood and Chivalry. Greenwood Press. p. 102. ISBN 0-313-25347-1. 
  26. ^ Cathcart King, David J. (1983). Catellarium Anglicanum: An Index and Bibliography of the Castles in England, Wales and the Islands. Volume I: Anglesey–Montgomery. Kraus International Publications. p. 230. 
  27. ^ Press Releases Archived July 27, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  28. ^ "Dame Vera Lynn white cliffs of Dover campaign hits £1m". BBC News. Retrieved November 9, 2007. 
  29. ^ "White Cliffs of Dover Discover The White Cliffs". The Dover Museum. 
  30. ^ "White Cliffs of Dover Discover The White Cliffs". The Dover Museum. 
  31. ^ Palmer, Roy (1986). The Oxford Book of Sea Songs. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-214159-7. 
  32. ^ Wolfle, Dael (12 May 1967). "Huxley's Classic of Explanation". Science. 156 (3776): 815–816. JSTOR 1722013. 
  33. ^ Krulwich, Robert. "Thinking Too Much About Chalk". NPR. Retrieved 11 June 2015. 

External linksEdit