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White Cliffs of Dover

Discover The White Cliffs

The famous White Cliffs of Dover stand guard at the Gateway to England where millions pass each year on their journey to or from the continent. In some places over 300 feet high, the White Cliffs are a symbol of the nation's strength against enemies and a reassuring sight to returning travellers, they have been immortalised in song, in literature and in art.

 

The Geology

On a clear day you can see right across from the Dover cliffs to the cliffs on the French coast at Cap Gris Nez, proof of the continuous strata of chalk.

Around seventy million years ago this part of Britain was submerged by a shallow sea. The sea bottom was made of a white mud formed from the fragments of coccoliths - the skeletons of tiny algae which floated in the surface waters of the sea. This mud was later to become the chalk. It is thought that the chalk was deposited very slowly, probably only half a millimetre a year - equivalent to about 180 coccoliths piled one on top of another. In spite of this, up to 500 metres of chalk were deposited in places. The coccoliths are too small to be seen without a powerful microscope but if you look carefully you will find fossils of some of the larger inhabitants of the chalk sea such as sponges, shells, ammonites and urchins.

Since the time of the chalk sea, the chalk has been lifted out of the water by movements of the earth's crust. Most of the shaping of the beautiful chalk downlands we see today took place during the last Ice Age. The latter part of the Ice Age also saw the invasion of chalk by the English Channel - Britain had become an island.

The Romans

The history of Britain is intricately linked with the White Cliffs from the Roman invasion to the assault made by Germany in both World Wars. The first recorded description of Dover describes the scene that Julius Caesar saw in 55 BC when, with two legions of soldiers, he arrived off Dover looking for a suitable landing place and ' saw the enemy's forces, armed, in position on all the hills there. At that point steep cliffs came down close to the sea in such a way that it is possible to hurl weapons from them right down to the shore. It seemed to me that the place was altogether unsuitable for landing.' (Caesar's Commentaries, Book IV.)

 

But they did land just along the coast in Deal and a year later a full scale invasion followed. As an aid to navigation for the Roman ships, two lighthouses, Pharos, were built on top of the cliffs. One is on the east cliff and stands adjacent to the church of St. Mary, in Dover Castle and is today in an excellent state of preservation. A second Pharos was built on the Western Heights, its remains were called in the 17thcentury the Bredenstone and by some, the Devil's Drop of Mortar. During excavation work for further fortifications of the site in 1861 the foundations of the tower were discovered and left exposed in the wall of the Officers' Quarters.

The Defence of the Nation

The east cliff with its commanding view over the channel is a position of natural strength and has been the site of fortification since the Iron Age. The Castle dates back to the 11th century but additions and alterations have been made up to and including the twentieth century. Looking up at the cliffs from Townwall Street, on the approach to the Eastern Docks, you can see signs of massive tunnelling works at various levels in the cliff below the Castle. The upper level of evacuation took place in Napoleonic times to provide cannon ports and were used during World War I as an hospital. In World War II this level was used to billet troops during the excavation of Dunkirk. The lower levels housed the operations room for Channel Command during the Battle of Britain and the rooms that Winston Churchill used as his personal war-time headquarters.

 

It was at Churchill's insistence that superior artillery positions were maintained along the White Cliffs, leading perhaps inevitably, to the first gun installed being called ' Winnie' . There were gun batteries along the cliffs at St. Margaret's Bay, Langdon Bay, St. Martin's Battery and the Citadel (the Western Heights) and at Capel near Folkestone. The counterbombardment and anti-aircraft gun fire was directed from a control room in the cliff complex.

On the west cliff, known as the Western heights, are two Napoleonic forts linked by miles of ditches. Construction of these began in 1804 and was not completed until the 1860s. The Drop Redoubt, the smaller detached fort, housed a team of Commandos in World War II. Their task would have been to sabotage the port in the event of Dover falling to German forces.

The White Cliffs in Song and Literature

In 1941 the White Cliffs became a symbol of the hope for peace expressed in the lines of the song 'The White Cliffs of Dover', sung by Vera Lynn (words by Nat Burton, music by Walter Kent, 1941).

But perhaps the most famous reference to the White Cliffs is the reason why Shakespeare Cliff is so called. In King Lear, Act IV, Scene I, the Earl of Gloucester having asked Edgar ' Dost thou know Dover?' says,

 

' There is a cliff, whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep:
Bring me to the very brim of it .......'

 

Edgar fools the blinded 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.'

 

Shakespeare's mention of samphire gatherers prompts a diversion from literature to an example of the plant life which abounds on the chalk grasslands and even on the cliff face. The Rock Samphire, a native perennial with small yellow florets, was once a favourite vegetable, the leaves and stalk were cooked and eaten like asparagus. Samphire gatherers collected the plant by attaching themselves to a rope suspended from the cliff top. In 1768 a highwayman escaped from confinement in the Castle by way of a rope left by a samphire gatherer at the top of the Castle cliffs.

Not all apprehended thieves got away so easily though. In medieval times the cliff overlooking Snargate Street called Sharpness Cliff was a place of execution. The prosecutor had to double as executioner and throw the thief off the cliff.

The last word we'll give to Matthew Arnold from his poem Dover Beach, published in 1867.

' 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.'

 


 

 

 

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