The White Cliffs of Dover: Embracing adventure even when its not convenient

It was something that I had always wanted to see so when the opportunity came up to hike the White Cliffs of Dover at the point where France was closest to the United Kingdom I seized it. I knew when I was doing it that it was a unique opportunity not so much for the event in itself, but because my great photographer daughter was with me and was primed for a little adventure that she was feeling deprived of simply due to the realities of adult life.  As a little girl we did this kind of thing all the time, but now we don’t get to see each other in this way very much because we are all busy adults.  We get time together during a typical week to grab a bite to eat or go somewhere into town—but for adventures where we get to chase dreams, ideas, and the specter of “big thinking” there just aren’t many opportunities that allow for such things as grown-ups living different lives and raising families of their own.  When my kids were little I was able to set the pace because I was the parent, now they are parents of their own and have spouses who have things they want to do and see so things get pretty complicated sometimes just to do simple things together.  But, here my oldest daughter and I were in England together and everyone but us were tired from our previous visit to Dover Castle where the February temperature had dropped and a bank of cloudy fog had moved in choking off the rays of the sun into a dreary canopy that was freezing the other members of our group.  But my daughter—the professional photographer that she is couldn’t resist to get some shots for her portfolio that included the nearby cliffs, but also the light of the deep fog bank.  So we left our other members at the car and went for what we thought would be a 30 minute walk. We didn’t return until two and a half hours later.  Here is a shortened video version of our hike down to the beach of the White Cliffs of Dover.

We were able to see our destination before the heavy fog rolled in so we had an idea where we were going before we really committed to the area. What surprised me was how vast everything was, because in England most things especially in the cities were so small.  But they had built a nice park that reminded me of the kind in America where you could literally walk all day doing major hiking.  In that regard we were unprepared as we started off and discovered the ferry link to France far below our feet which was transporting enormous amounts of cargo and large trucks over to the European mainland.  Next to that was the English Channel looking very sinister in the cold of the day with the fog licking its surface and building up against the cliffs like a crowd waiting to get into a rock concert—anxious and frustrated—and thick.   My daughter and I wanted to get down to the beach which was around 350 feet below to 300 feet and part of the trail system had a means of getting down there with a series of steps and ladders.  So we were headed in that direction when the fog rolled in and took away all our visual reference points of the vast land.

It was easy to see why it was hard to invade England at this point, which was closest to the European mainland. For eight miles these cliffs faced their rivals over the centuries and fog like the one we were experiencing further frustrated such efforts.  The advantage was certainly in favor of the English under any armed attack—which is why one of the biggest castles in all of Europe was there at Dover.  What should have been a 30 minute walk turned out to be several hours because once you get atop of those cliffs and start walking east, they just go on and on.  The trail system was good, but there weren’t signs to say exactly where you were, you had to follow a map, and again, the fog took away our visual references.  So after a lot of walking and passing up the narrow corridor down to the beach a few times, we eventually found it.  At one point in the video I held my camera over the edge to record how far down it was to the beach and the jagged rocks below.  I am particularly proud of that shot not just because it showed the obvious danger of the cliffs.  We were able to walk right to the edge of them and look over, which was dangerous because everything was slippery from the constant dew that was on everything all the time.  But honestly, my new iPhone 7 Plus has a steadycam feature that made that shot possible.  Just a few years ago an over the edge shot like that would have been too jittery to really see what was going on as such a small camera would shake all over the place—even your heartbeat would move the camera looking over such a vast crevasse.  But with the new iPhone, the shot was easy which made recording such a thing so much more achievable spontaneously, which is what this little hike was all about.

Once we found the way down, we worked our way through to find eventually that the entire path had been washed out and destroyed by the erosion from above. A large rock had fallen and taken out the bridge that led over to the ladder which dropped everyone the additional forty feet down to the beach.  So we stopped there and took our pictures and soaked up the moment. We had been walking around for an hour and a half just to get to that point and knew it would take a while to get back, and that the rest of our family was waiting for us with a newborn baby.  But for that moment we didn’t worry about it.  We were just a dad and daughter relishing an adventure that comes so seldom.   We  embraced the moment without regret.  As we were looking at the ocean a little seal came up to the beach then retreated to the deep water again.  It was a nice moment.

We returned to the car an hour later to find our family patiently waiting. We were covered in sweat and chalk from the cliffs as we had to climb back up and out.  We had walked five miles and we felt it, especially the nearly vertical climb back up from the beach. And that moment became one for the record books.  We won’t ever forget it because it was a fine example of the benefit of spontaneity.  I have a reputation in my family of getting the most out of unplanned circumstances.  I’m not one that likes to plan things out with too much detail because I don’t want to miss the hidden opportunities that might come up while exploring something.  So I typically have a rough idea of what I want to do then improvise as I’m doing it adjusting to the situation as it presents itself.  But adulthood is all about schedules and deadlines, so it can be tricky business to live the way I do and most adults don’t enjoy it.  However, I raised my daughters with that kind of thinking so they crave it all the time—and most of the time are disappointed by the realities of life that does require plans and forethought.  Personally, it would have been easier to stay in the car and do something more conventionally, especially after exploring the castle at Dover.  But the opportunity was there so it’s good to take it when you can.  Many times, the best things in life come when we don’t see them or plan for them.  And that little moment in time with my oldest daughter was very special and a natural outgrowth of the spirit of adventure.  By the time we returned to the car, we had both grown a little from the experience and the exhaustion that often comes with doing things outside of one’s comfort zones carried us to a new level that defies explanation—but it sure makes you sleep well at night.

Rich Hoffman

 CLIFFHANGER RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT

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