Walking the White Cliffs of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover are among the most iconic landscapes in Britain. Their statuesque gleam has inspired poets such as William Wordsworth and Lord Byron to take up the pen, and novelists including Paul Theroux and even Ian Fleming. They were immortalised by Vera Lynn’s wartime troop-rouser ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’, and provided a cheering sight to the weary, disheartened soldiers returning from Dunkirk. And of course the vast chalk cliffs of Dover are also symbolic of Britain’s illustrious capacity for defence: in 55BC Julius Caesar was discouraged from landing here by fearsome warriors lining the cliffs, while during the Battle of Britain many a desperate dogfight took place overhead. Hardly surprising then, that walking this dramatic stretch of coast has the capacity to stir the soul.
This four-day route takes you from the walled city of Canterbury and its magnificent cathedral to Deal, following the course of the Nailbourne, a tributary of the River Stour. From Deal you can return by train to Canterbury across the Isle of Thanet. The route crosses idyllic pastoral scenes, including the bottom of Elham Valley, where you can pause for a tasting session at a local vineyard. It descends to the shingle beach of St Margaret’s Bay with its rock pools and ice cream kiosk, finally reaching Deal, generally reckoned to be the most picturesque seaside town in Kent.
Once you have returned to Canterbury you can also choose to extend your walk by two or three more days, continuing on to the Cinque Port town of Sandwich, not forgetting your own sandwiches for lunch. Yes, it’s true, the 4th Earl of Sandwich really did invent the bread-based snack. An organised six-day holiday is the easiest way to tackle the route, with four full days of self-guided walking, all accommodation booked for you along the way, lunches on offer made with local ingredients and lots of expert insights into what you’re seeing.

The White Cliffs

You’ll be walking along parts of the Saxon Shore Way, which in its entirety is 260km of coastal loveliness from Gravesend to Hastings, and the White Cliffs Country Trail. When you reach Folkestone you embark on what is probably the most spectacular section, the ground rising steeply up as you gradually ascend the cliffs to look out across the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel. On a clear day you can sometimes make out buildings on the French coast near Calais without binoculars.

Before air travel and the Channel Tunnel, the White Cliffs of Dover were often the first or the last sight people had of England. But beyond the euphoric or melancholic feelings they can evoke, the cliffs are a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the grassland at the top teeming with wildflowers and butterflies, and partly maintained by grazing Exmoor ponies. Migratory birds frequently make a stop here, including swallows and house martins, the ‘bluebirds’ of Vera Lynn’s song.
This fascinating and wonderfully scenic walk takes you through the Garden of England, past Iron Age hill forts, a Knights Templar church, Martello towers, historic ports, the Victorian-era South Foreland lighthouse and Dover Castle, founded by William the Conqueror and the largest in England. You’ll stay in locally owned inns along the way, where hosts provide regional fare for your packed lunches every day such as locally produced bread, chutney and cheeses.
Why limit yourself to admiring the scale of the White Cliffs from ferry crossings over the Channel, or see Kent through the window of a coach or a car, when you can get a far better sense of their grandeur on foot? All together now…
There'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see
(Burton / Kent)

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Travel Team
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Mandy Bright from our specialist walking operator Walk Awhile offers her insights into the White Cliffs of Dover walking route:

Accommodations

“The accommodation we use on this iconic route is in historic inns and hotels, though we occasionally use a well-reviewed guest house in Dover when availability demands. Full English breakfast is included, and walkers choose to either eat in at the accommodation in the evening, or in restaurants which is a great opportunity to try some of the local cuisine.”

Terrain

“The time taken to walk each day depends on the walkers themselves – it’s generally a short day though so you have plenty of time to stop for a drink, a photo, or the views. In terms of terrain it is easy to moderate - there are some gradients as you go up on to the Downs, but it is not steep.”

Sandwich

“Continuing to Sandwich involves following the Saxon Shoreway through the Royal St Georges golf course, and the option to visit Richborough Castle (English Heritage) the Roman ‘gateway to England’. Sandwich is one of the Cinque Ports and is full of historic buildings, including the Salutation which was designed by Lutyens, and the gardens (open to the public) laid out by Gertrude Jekyll.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Callum Wale] [The white cliffs: Callum Wale] [Dover Castle: William Warby] [Deal & Walmer: Robert Elsmore]
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