Go on, admit it. As soon as you saw that this walk took you over those famous white cliffs you came over all Vera Lynn and hummed, 'There'll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover,' to yourself. It's okay, practically everyone who walks here does the same at some point. Yet while this distinctive landmark is known all over the world and is seen as a symbol of England, few people realise that it is also an important wildlife habitat – so important that it supports species rarely found elsewhere.
The cliffs, made of chalk, are topped with a thin, porous soil that has been grazed by animals for hundreds of years, creating what is known as chalk downland. Grazing stops coarse grasses and scrub invading the land and creates the ideal environment for hundreds of wild flowers to flourish. And while the early farmers didn't realise it, they were creating unique plant communities. While you're walking, keep your eyes peeled for plants like horseshoe vetch, early spider orchid, and yellow rattle that gets its name from the seed pods that rattle in the wind. And with wild flowers, of course, come butterflies – particularly those wonderful blue ones that you so rarely see these days. Look out for the silvery chalkhill blue and the gorgeous sapphire Adonis blue. I even spotted a butterfly here in December. It wasn't close enough to identify, but it was a cheering sight nonetheless.
Other wild creatures of the cliffs include adders (you're unlikely to see one), slow worms (a legless lizard), common lizards and birds such as fulmars, peregrine falcons and skylarks – no bluebirds though. Unfortunately modern farming methods have led to a 98 per cent decline in chalk downland and with it, of course, a similar decline in the plants and animals it supports. In an attempt to halt this decline, the National Trust has introduced Exmoor ponies to the white cliffs. These hardy little ponies eat the coarse grasses that would otherwise invade the land, and so allow the wild flowers to grow.
From the car park and visitor centre walk away from Dover, following the Saxon Shore Way through a gate and up over the cliffs past the coastguard station. Drop down and follow the trail around the edge of Langdon Hole, the path continuing along the cliffs and up to South Foreland Lighthouse. Some of the tracks branch off and lead very close to the cliff edge – there is a danger of cliff falls here, so keep to the main route. You may see some Exmoor ponies. They've been introduced to the cliffs to graze the rare chalk downland and help preserve the habitat. Follow the path up to the lighthouse.
With the lighthouse on your left-hand side, take the metalled track ahead and keep straight on along a narrow tarmac path where the track curves right in a few paces. At the end turn right and follow another metalled track, passing houses to reach the road at St Margaret's at Cliffe.
Turn right, keep ahead at the junction down Bay Hill, soon to take the path right, signed 'Steps to the Beach'. Steeply descend to a road and turn right, passing The Pines Garden and St Margaret's at Cliffe Museum. The village was an exclusive resort and the museum celebrates two famous residents: Ian Fleming (1908–64) and Sir Nöel Coward (1899–1973).
From the museum continue along the track, bearing sharp left before a cattle grid with the Saxon Shore Way sign. At the right-hand bend, go through the gate ahead and bear right along the grassy cliff path. Eventually reach another gate and turn left along the track, passing a windmill, to return to South Foreland Lighthouse. Retrace your steps along the cliff back to the car park – no hardship when you have these wonderful views.
Chalky cliff paths, short section of road
Grassy cliff tops with extensive sea views
Good, but keep dogs on lead for safety on cliff top
OS Explorer 138 Dover, Folkestone & Hythe
National Trust White Cliffs Visitor Centre car park
National Trust tea room
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
The White Cliffs of Dover are an English icon – the epitome of our island heritage and sense of nationhood. They also mark the point where the Kent Downs AONB, that great arc of chalk downland stretching from the Surrey Hills and sometimes known as ‘the Garden of England’, finally reaches the sea. This is a well-ordered and settled landscape, where chalk and greensand escarpments look down into the wooded Weald to the south.
Many historic parklands, including Knole Park and Sir Winston Churchill’s red-brick former home at Chartwell, are also worth visiting. Attractive settlements such as Charing, site of Archbishop Cranmer’s Tudor palace, and Chilham, with its magnificent half-timbered buildings and 17th-century castle built on a Norman site, can be found on the Pilgrim’s Way, the traditional route for Canterbury-bound pilgrims in the Middle Ages.
In the nature reserves, such as the traditionally coppiced woodlands of Denge Wood and Earley Wood, and the ancient fine chalk woodland of Yockletts Bank high on the North Downs near Ashford, it is still possible to experience the atmosphere of wilderness that must have been felt by the earliest travellers along this ancient ridgeway.