Slowly shifting sands

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Fallen chalk

Nothing seems more permanent than seven miles of solid rock, towering above the sea. People have stood on them over the centuries and have looked out to see Roman invaders, Napoleon’ troops lighting camp fires in France, the Armada sailing by, a flotilla of small boats bringing back soldiers from Dunkirk, and much more. Hitsory has flowed and the cliffs have remained steadfast.

Or at least that’s how it seems. In fact. Look more closely and the cliffs too have flowed, albeit more slowly, while history reveals its own kind of permanence.

Walking along the cliff yesterday, I looked down to see a protrusion of fallen chalk, surrounded by a kind of halo of milky blue, the water around it being whipped up by the waves with chalk dust. Above it, a section of cliffs was pure white, showing how recent the rockfall had been.

A little further up the coast stands the South Foreland lighthouse and the second smaller lighthouse nearer the cliff. The purpose of the second tower was that sailors could line up the two lights. If the higher, main light was to the right of the second one, that meant they had drifted too far north and risked hitting the shallows of the Goodwin Sands. Otherwise, they knew they were safe.

However, this function didn’t last long. The Goodwin Sands, the great ship swallower that has sunk over 2,000 vessels, shifted position and the line marked by the lights ceased to mark the line of danger. Meanwhile, cliff erosion means the second lighthouse is now several yards closer to the edge and it almost certainly won’t see the end of the century.

If the cliffs are less static than they appear, so history reveals that our ancestors were not as different as their strange costumes make them look. Go back to any period and you find people are all grappling with the same issues and coming up with remarkably similar solutions. At Dover Castle, for example, you’ll find a Roman lighthouse. Kept burning 24 hours, with wet wood to create a smoke plume by day and dry wood to create a light at night, sailors would work out their position by seeing where they were in relation to a triangle of towers, two on the lent coats and one in France. They lined up the lights, just as the victorians did.

There are numerous other reminders along this coast of the continuities of human nature and the flux of nature. In that respect, the Cliffs are a kind of lesson in time. They remind us that nothing lasts forever, but that although our individual lives are all to short, there are scales by which human society and nature move more slowly. We are bit characters in just one chapter of a much longer book, a book written into the chalk at Dover.

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