As a native English speaker, to me there is no place on Earth that inbues the blend of history and living, breathing literature than England. It is a land which begs you to ditch the dull guidebook lectures and experience it from within the swirling literary palette of its authors and poets.
Looking out over the White Cliffs of Dover, the air was filled with the sound of seabirds and the assortment of distant noises coming from the massive port below as dozens of ferries delicately navigated, loading or unloading convoys of trucks delivering goods back and forth to mainland Europe.
The sky feels huge over the Cliffs of Dover. But on this day, a sea of clouds was hovering above the Channel approaching the cliffs like an Armada of ghost ships, until pushing up against them, rising over the edge and blanketing the view. I was fully expecting to die a painful death at the hands of zombie pirates or huge insects. But in the distance, a clearing in the sky revealed the coast of France, a mere 20 miles away, giving hope that the day would not be spent in the confines of floating water.
As late as 1929, one guidebook referred to one of the cliffs as Shakespeare’s Cliff1 located about a “Half mile to the southwest of the town”. Today this is called Samphire Hoe and was the location of the first attempt to build a tunnel across the Channel in the late 1870’s. However, the most famous stretch of cliffs are to the east of Dover where I currently found myself waiting thru the sudden fog. I suppose if I was the Earl of Gloucester2 and just had my eyes gouged out after being betrayed by my son, I would also want to choose a dramatic place like this to jump to my death. When the sky cleared and I had a chance to peek out over the edge, I had no Earl of Gloucester in me. A rush of vertigo shoo-ed me back to the main path filling me with the relief of having both my eyeballs intact and a heart beating, albeit a tad bit faster than it was just moments before. I kicked my heels and continued on.
If you are visiting Dover, there is a good chance you are either just hopping off a ferry from Calais or a train from London. The below map starts and ends the hike from the Dover Priory train station. A visit to the Dover Castle is part of the hike, but the time and distance do not include the exploration of the castle.
|Starting/Ending Point||Dover Priory Train Station|
|Refreshments||Knott’s Tea Room (South Foreland Lighthouse)|
It’s Not Just a Beer, It’s a Journey
I have done the cliff hike three times, each in different months. July 2011, November 2012, and May 2022. It is a site that has beautiful unique character in each season.
The gateway for this hike takes you thru one of the more curious streets in all my travels, East Cliff Road. A long street of small houses sandwiched between the cliff and the harbor, this street feels exactly like the slogan of the hostel pub upon which it is situated. The Last Pub in the Civilized World.
The climb up the Dame Vera Lynn Way shortly beyond East Cliff Road will probably be the most strenuous part for most people, but views over the port are amazing.
There are several trails which criss-cross the cliffs. For this hike, I took the well-traveled route along the cliff’s edge to the South Foreland Lighthouse and then came back by a more direct in-land route.
I don’t personally have any photo ritual (other than the beer pics) when I travel but for some reason the cliche feet shot is one that I have in Dover.
November is a particularly beautiful time to visit when the sun is shining to get a great glow and shadow effect as the sun starts to set. This is one of my favorite shots that I have ever taken of my daughter.
The South Foreland Lighthouse is the furthest point of this hike. Here it is highly recommended to visit the Knott’s Tea Room for a scone with clotted cream and jam.
Rather than back-track, I returned by the in-land route which is paved and suitable for strollers and bikes.
As you arrive back at the beginning, Dover Castle comes into view.
There is no direct link between the Cliffs of Dover hike and Dover Castle. It is necessary to climb back down into the city center and follow the road up to the castle. But this gives the opportunity for the first beer of the day at The White Horse, which is situated next to some old abbey ruins. The interior of the pub has the names, dates, and times of people who have managed to swim the English Channel.
I rarely find myself interested to visit castles anymore, but Dover Castle is one of the nicest ones (and possibly largest in all of England) with a lot of places to freely explore.
Dover Castle originates from the 11th century and has remnants of Roman, Saxon, and Norman architecture. A Roman lighthouse is still standing next to St. Mary’s Church. Climbing to the top of the Great Tower built by King Henry II gives the best view.
One of the most interesting parts to visit within the Dover Castle complex are the Secret Wartime Tunnels where the evacuation of Dunkirk, known as Operation Dynamo, was directed. Don’t miss the Dynamo beer sold at the giftshop (the real reason for visiting the castle).
If you want to actually drink a beer inside Dover Castle, then you may want to visit the cafe, where back in 2011, they were serving a Hepworth Sussex, my first ever beer on English soil.
But for this trip, I was saving my thirst for the last stop of the hike, a pub that has served me all three visits, The Eight Bells.
On this day, despite the earlier Shakespearian references, it wasn’t the Great Bard who was flickering around like sparks inside the wiring of my imagination. I came to England with a literary theme in mind, but for another of its great writers, one for whom I have far more sentimentality. It had to be fate then when I made a stop at the Cliffs of Dover Visitor Center and found a small tent advertising used books. These were not your average yard sale used books. Most of them were legitimate antiques. As I rummaged thru the boxes and shelves, sharing playful banter with the old ladies managing the tent, one name kept copiously appearing. Each time, my pupils dilated more and more like a cat ready to pounce. With limited carrying capacity in my backpack, I was suddenly a spoiled little kid having to decide between toys in a toy store. I checked the spines, scanned each one for the publishing date, picked them up, put them back, picked them up again, synapses lighting up my skull with indecision and disbelief. The author had been to Dover many times3. One of his most famous characters visited Dover looking for his aunt and was sarcastically told that she “lived in the South Foreland Light, and had singed her whiskers doing so.”4 It turns out the aunt lived in a different part of Dover and this character lived there many years. I couldn’t find this particular book, but I found others. My brain finally found a convergence. I settled on three books. One inscribed by someone on Christmas Day 1911 and the other two part of a set dating to about 1935. I paid £7.
- A Satchel Guide to Europe (1929) – Rolfe and Crockett
- A tragic character in Shakespeare’s King Lear who throws himself off the Cliffs of Dover
- A Week’s Tramp in Dickens Land (1893) – William R. Hughes
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens