I had no thought then of husband or lover,
I was a traveller, the guest of a week;
Yet when they pointed ‘the white cliffs of Dover’,
Startled I found there were tears on my cheek.
“The White Cliffs” by Alice Duer Miller (1940)
I remember my first day in England clear as day. My school had organised a trip to London for us to practice whatever we were supposed to have learnt in our English course. I was fifteen. The sun was shining in the early morning, the sea was calm and my friends and I were on the deck of the P&O ferry from Calais. At the time, because we lived in the pre-9/11 era, there were fewer controls than nowadays. We generally enjoyed more freedom as, symptomatically, you could simply go up and down the stairs from one deck to another, which is forbidden now. So, there we were, at the bow, trying to figure out who would spot England first. I don’t remember who did, to be fair, but I do remember the effect that the White Cliffs of Dover had on me.
In many aspects, to a foreigner like me, the White Cliffs are a promise. They are the physical evidence that you are travelling. As much as I enjoy approaching London in a Eurostar train, I have to admit that the journey is mainly made of tunnels and suddenly, you see the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe, as the official name goes) and London is there. It is all a bit anticlimactic when it comes to adventurous journeys. But the White Cliffs, standing tall like a centuries-old scar on the green face of the sea, are something else.
Fifteen years and many travels later, it was time for me to see them again. It would have been stupid not to, since the crossing is really cheap and England is only 40 kilometers away from the continent (I love the way the English think they live on a different continent). I was as pleased to see the Cliffs as when I was a teenager, and I felt the same sense of promise.
If you dislike having sand in your shoes (or god forbid, between your toes) and if, like Jon, you have that feeling deep down that the whole civilisation is at stake when you need to walk on a sandy beach, the “naked shingles” of Dover beach might be just the right thing for you, though pebbles are not very comfortable to walk on if you are barefoot, but it’s not really the point when, like us, you are travelling in early October.
Like many towns on the English seaside, Dover expanded during the 19th century as a result of the gradual development of the harbour and railway services. The population increased by 600% and the Promenade Pier was built (it was later dismantled) together with the seafront hotels and appartments.
Dover may be a gate between the continent and England, but I think it is a gorgeous town in its own right. Don’t just drive off to Canterbury or Hastings; Dover is worth a walk, and seaside towns are so romantically calm in the off season. The Maison Dieu House (grade II listed building), just next to the Maison Dieu, is absolutely exquisite.
St Mary’s Church on High Street is a lovely stop if you are into deciphering writings on (very) old tombstones.
If, at this point, you are a bit hungry or craving for a pint, I would recommend the Eight Bells on Cannon Street, where the staff is very friendly, the food delicious and the prices pretty low. It is a nice place to taste Kentish beers and the atmosphere is relaxed. (On a side note, we were there during the quarter-finals of the rugby world cup and I’m pretty sure that I had never seen so many Welshmen, even in Wales).
And of course, a visit to Dover would not be complete without a walk on the White Cliffs, the best place on earth to get emotional.
Oh, and a few more pictures from the boat:
Next stop: Canterbury.