The White Cliffs of Dover: Edges, Distance and War.
I wasn’t prepared for the sheer whiteness of the White Cliffs of Dover. The grassy clifftop walk threads its way like sheep trails, from Dover towards the South Foreland Lighthouse. You don’t actually see the cliffs until a bit of height lays out angled scoops of white dropping vertically from the green scalloped cliff edge. I’m grabbed by the beauty of the clean, open landscape.
I walk to the edge, checking for splits in the soil under the grass, and peer over. The soil is only about a foot deep and underneath, the chalk is brilliantly white and threaded in dotted layers of flints. Straight below, the cloudy water of the Channel washes up onto grey pebbles and the dark seaweedy rock platform.
Almost the day before, I had been walking along the beach at Port Melbourne. The sand sloped gently towards the water’s edges and I crunched broken shells underfoot. It was low tide and the sand was exposed in swooping curves. The water was clear and stretched across the Bay to the low hills of Mornington Peninsula.
From the Cliff top, I looked out to sea and realised that the long, dark grey line of land across the Channel was France. Except for the tall buildings of Calais, it looked just like the Mornington Peninsula. St Margaret’s Bay, nearby, is where the Channel swimmers come ashore or push off for the twenty-two mile swim.
I felt the small island’s physical vulnerability to invasion from the European continent. It gave some insight to the whole Brexit mess.
The cliffs offer a perpetual visual reminder of the proximity of Europe and the two World Wars. They are riddled with military tunnels and backed by rows of gun emplacements. Even the air space reinforces these memories when the raspy roar of a restored Spitfire fills the sky. The small brown plane with the RAF insignia on its tail flies parallel to the cliffs, low and close. It climbs, does flips and dominates the moment.
Back at Port Melbourne, the physical traces of war are relatively gentle: the statue of the waving sailor, memories of the troop ships leaving for Europe and Africa, the band rotunda donated by women to welcome home the wounded servicemen and the small war memorial. The Mornington Peninsula is just part of Victoria across the bay, and not a threatening land mass.
I think about edges and distance. The coast is a clear line between the solidity of what we know and the shifting formlessness of a mass of water. I enjoyed the physical contrast between the clean abruptness of Dover’s cliffs compared to our quiet merging of sand and sea. Here, the tea trees are in spring flower but there, the wind contorted hawthorns were thick with autumnal berries. I think of how distance from Europe largely insulated us from the daily reality of war. I’m grateful for the emotional impact of the military archaeology and for the memories of the beauty and power of the White Cliffs of Dover.