Solo To Dover
My journey to the White Cliffs
Science and Travel Writer and Photographer Alyssa Grace
“There are many pros and cons to traveling alone.” – Alyssa Grace
When I told some Britons I was going to Dover, most of them just looked confused.
Why would I want to go there? My answer: the White Cliffs of Dover, of course! The answer seemed obvious to me, but apparently like even native-born English don’t know or care enough about this geological wonder. (In Hawai‘i, a similar analogy would be locals not going to see Green Sands, or the summit of Mauna Kea.)
What exactly are the White Cliffs of Dover? In the most basic terms - because I am not a geologist - the White Cliffs are essentially chalk, made of the skeletal remains of algae built up over millions of years, and later exposed by the melting of glaciers. Their heights reach up to 300 feet and overlook the English Channel, which separates the U.K. from France. On a very clear day, you can even see France from the cliffs. It is a bit similar to seeing Haleakalā from the Kona side, except much flatter.
The White Cliffs of Dover are part of the U.K.’s National Trust. Areas taken care of by the National Trust are what really resembles the U.S. National Park service in the way that wilderness is managed, maintained and kept as just that - wilderness. However, an important distinction: national “parks” in the U.K. are not like the ones in the U.S. They contain towns where people live, work, and farm - unlike the utter wilderness found in U.S. parks. Being a national park in the U.K. simply means that the laws for development on the land are stricter and aimed toward conservation.
Another major difference between the U.S. National Park Service and the U.K. National Trust is that the Trust is a charity funded by donations, membership fees, and revenue from commercial operations like gift shops and other tourism-fueled businesses.
On my first day in Dover, I wasted no time in going straight to the cliffs. The National Trust entrance is within walking distance from the town itself; the excursion is free, unless you take a car, which requires you to pay for parking. I was lucky to have sunny weather. People will often tell you that it rains a lot in the U.K., but I think Hilo rains more.
The hike with lots of hills is not very hard. Your path is laid out before you, in well-worn dirt within fields of thick grass. Over the edges of the cliffs, you can see the beach far below - with shining black and brown pebbles instead of fine sand - and sometimes you catch a glimpse of metal debris. From particular spots, you can see the stark white sides of the cliffs; it all certainly feels very old. These cliffs sure have seen a lot.
At the end of the Dover trail is the South Foreland Lighthouse, where you’ll find tea, tours, and plenty of history. In the gift shop, one of the volunteers was kind enough to give me very detailed instructions on how to continue to the next town over along the cliffs and then get back to Dover by bus. (Once the volunteer realized I was American, she immediately started talking about our election. Her suggestion was for us to somehow re-elect Obama for a third term; I guess she really liked him.)
From the lighthouse, I wandered down to St. Margaret’s Bay. Despite the nice woman’s instructions, I couldn’t help feeling a bit lost. I walked down a narrow, unpaved road - dark with trees overhead - and eventually through a wooden gate, marked with an incredibly gray sign depicting the White Cliffs.
After going through the gate, however, I felt even more lost. The cliffs past the lighthouse are still white on their sides, of course. But the tops are not flat and green: they’re covered with bushes and short trees along the edges. And the most worrying part was that there was no one else near me. In the end, though, I got one of the best views from these cliffs and the greatest sense of adventure.
The walk along the cliffs was very short, and it ends at another small wooden gate and then back to the unpaved road. At the bottom is the bay, a popular swimming area in the warmer months. From here, the cliffs are on both sides of you, and France is in front across the water.
This beach is worth seeing but difficult to leave. You either have to walk the two to three hours back to Dover, or up an incredibly steep hill for 20 minutes into St. Margaret and wait for a bus. I chose the latter. I missed two busses because I didn’t understand their signs, or the 24-hour clocks. Once safely back in Dover, I enjoyed one of the best dinners I’ve had so far in England.
At the end of the day, I realized that I really miss home and seeing the ocean reminded me of Hawai‘i’s own beautiful views. But hiking also reminded of how much I love being outdoors. And being alone gives you a lot of time to appreciate these feelings. There are many pros and cons to traveling alone. I believe these are the best:
Cons: You can only take selfies. Sure, you can ask fellow travelers to take a photo of you, but you risk getting your camera stolen. Or suffer a bit of embarrassment if they can’t speak English. Traveling at night or in empty covered forests feels a bit scary. But Dover is a safe place; my Airbnb host told me so and I came out unscathed.
Pros: You decide everything: where you’re going and how fast, what you’re eating, etc. It’s really fun and quite liberating to just do what you want, when you want, and not compromise with another person or take 20 minutes to decide on a suitable restaurant. You become a more competent traveler.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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