Most people know the White Cliffs from the song but I know them because I grew up next to them. Not admittedly the famous ones at Dover but the Seven Sisters, the cliffs in Sussex that stretch eastwards from Brighton and are a brilliant white background on a sunny day when you walk almost anywhere along the coast, except of course if you are looking out to sea from on top of them. I consider our Sussex cliffs superior to the Kent ones which are dirty and rather ragged looking in comparison to the Sisters, although I dare say the soldiers seeing them on the way to or back from war would not have been that particular. They were a sign of home and worth protecting.
In fact, the chalk cliffs along the south eastern shore of England remind us that we were once literally a part of Europe whatever the politicians and opinion polls say. As recently as 7000 years ago you could walk from Britain to Europe across what we now call the English Channel, the French La Manche. Many people did and began to populate our islands, erecting stone circles as temples. The most famous of these is Stonehenge which was built near the western edge of the great swathe of chalk that stretches across southern England from Dover to Winchester. Walking is the best way to see this country and I have twice now completed the hundred mile (160 kilometre) walk along the South Downs Way. Be prepared for mud if you try this walk. While the upper parts of the hills known oddly as Downs are generally dry the clay which lies next to them catches the water that runs through the porous chalk and turns it into a sticky goo.
Walking along the chalk ridges of the Way is simple but strenuous exercise taken at a pace you choose for yourself. Those more dedicated to fitness can swim across the Channel from Dover, a distance of just over twenty miles (thirty three kilometres). The first to do so was an English sea captain Mathew Webb in 1875 progressing at slightly under a mile an hour. The current records for the fastest swims by both men and women are currently held by Australians. Same old story: the Brits show the way and then the rest of the world overtakes us.
On a clear day you can see France from the Dover cliffs, but not from Sussex where we like to keep our distance. Whatever the distance the geology and climate of north eastern France and south eastern England are similar so it is not surprising that we produce the same sort of food and drink. Kent and Sussex farms are known for growing hops and apples but we also produce several million bottles of wine a year in England and the best of it stands comparison with the drink first invented by Dom Perignon. Not that we would ever be allowed to give it the name they use. The producers of the real stuff employ an army of lawyers to clamp down on those impertinent enough to use their name without permission (and don’t bother asking). Even Elizabeth Taylor ran foul of them when she advertised a perfume which used the name – and no-one was suggesting you drank that type of Champagne.
However, when French President Jacques Chirac came to London and was entertained by then Prime Minister Tony Blair he was offered an English version of the drink the French consider their own and was reportedly very impressed with it. Later in the visit they went to a local pub for a pint of warm English beer but history does not record what he thought of that, although the chances are that it was also made using hops grown in chalk soil.
For the geologist this part of England provides an intriguing contrast between the sedimentary rock of the chalk and the volcanic flints embedded into it. Chalk consists of the skeletons of tiny sea creatures laid down millions of years ago while flint is an igneous rock, its frozen liquidity clearly visible in the stones used as a filler in the walls of houses often topped off with a thatched roof. While chalk is not much use except for those teachers who still use blackboards, flint was always valued as a tool or weapon, its hardness and sharp edges being ideal for cutting and stabbing. Strike two flints together and, of course, you can start a fire as cigarette lighters still do. No wonder they called that cartoon series about our ancestors The Flintstones. Yabadabadoo…