Sunday, 30 December 2012

White cliffs

Notes from the 24th December. We’re in Kent for Christmas and today is the now almost traditional Christmas Eve walk – this year on the White Cliffs above Dover harbour. It’s a fantastically dull, dirty winter afternoon, the wind so strong on the cliffs you can lean into it; out in the channel, a green sea kicked into white horses by the violent gusts; somewhere out there in the mizzle lies the coast of France, now blotted out by low cloud. The ferries stand off from the breakwater waiting their turn to go in.

The white cliffs have a special meaning in the history of this island: a defence, a frontier, a place of departure and return, a relief to be waving farewell to or a focus for homesickness – an icon of some kind of England.

I’ve walked these cliffs many times over the past thirty years but today the tide is low and as we look down from the cliffs I get to witness something I’ve never heard about before. Far below, beached on the black rocks ,the outline of a wrecked ship, like the fossil remains of some giant prehistoric fish.

We scramble down the coastal path to investigate. There’s a narrow walk way above the beach to a row of Second World War searchlight stations, suspended on the cliff face like outsized swallows nests guarding the approaches of Dover harbour. It’s at sites like this that the British people were to be rallied by Churchill to fight on the beaches. Inside, a sequence of eerie concrete chambers from which we squint into the wind through the tattered remains of their steel shutters, which have been eroded into beautiful abstract patterns. There’s a weird, hair-raising attraction to Second World War archaeology. 

Down on the beach, it’s possible to climb onto the remnant of the ship, whose iron ribs have become fused with the rocks, and to stand on the last remaining piece of superstructure, like the conning tower of a lost submarine surfacing from the depths for a brief hour. There’s something incredibly awe-inspiring about this beached, ruined structure, turned into a network of iron rock pools reflecting the twilight sky, with the black shingle beach and the white cliffs shining in the gloom and the wind whipping up the midwinter sea.

These are the durable remains of the SS Falcon. Carrying a volatile cargo of hemp and matches to Dover in 1926, it caught fire and was beached in the bay outside the harbour. Amazingly there’s film footage of the ship on fire and the crew’s rescue by the Dover lifeboat.


  1. A most interesting tale you've told about your almost traditional Christmas Eve walk.

  2. You write in such clear, beautiful, and flowing detail. A reminder of why I enjoy reading your history books.