The White Cliffs of Dover

Europe - Editor - 03 September 2008

The White Cliffs of Dover

Immortalized in the World War II song by Vera Lynn, and either mentioned in, or the subject of, many poems, songs and films, the white cliffs of Dover are not only a natural wonder, they have great symbolic significance for Britain and its people. Stretching along the coastline at the narrowest part of the English Channel and facing towards Continental Europe, the white cliffs of Dover have for centuries stood guard over an area that may otherwise have been vulnerable to invasion.

The striking white cliffs, which are visible from France on a clear day, are composed of chalk (calcium carbonate) that is streaked by deposits of black flint. They spread majestically east and west of the historic, and still very active, English port town of Dover in the county of Kent, reaching a height of 106 meters above the water level in places.

It is believed that the white cliffs of Dover began to be formed during the Cretaceous Period, up to 136 million years ago, at a time when the area between Sweden/Poland in the east and Britain in the west lay submerged beneath deep tropical waters. During this period the skeletons of sponges, coral and other small sea creatures began to accumulate as sediment on the ocean floor. By around 70 million years ago, the sediments had formed into a mass of chalk between Britain and the Baltic Sea. Supporting this theory is the fact that similar, though smaller, white cliffs are found on the Danish islands of Langeland and Mon. This chalk layer was above sea level during the ice ages, but following the ice ages it was subject to erosion by rising sea levels. Tidal forces eroded the soft chalk land mass away and the English Channel was formed.

The cliff face continues to be vulnerable to erosion and loses around one centimeter per year. At times, most notably in 2001, large pieces, sometimes measuring several meters, fall into the channel unexpectedly, and visitors are requested to remain at least five meters away from the edge.

The white cliffs of Dover are home to several species of birds, including colonies of Black-legged Kittwake and Fulmar. Although Vera Lyn sang of bluebirds flying over the White Cliffs of Dover, there are no bluebirds found in the U.K. as they are an American species.

Miles of hidden tunnels are found behind the cliff face. These were created during the Middle Ages and later played a role in Britain’s defense strategies during the Napoleonic Wars. The tunnels were once again put to use in defense of the country during the World Wars, when they were enlarged and connected to Dover castle.

In the era before air travel, the distinctive white line of cliffs was either the first or last sight of the United Kingdom for travelers crossing the channel by boat, no doubt bringing many a tear to many an eye. Certainly, the white cliffs of Dover are well worth exploring if you should ever have the opportunity to visit the United Kingdom.

 



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