Victorian Colour Photo of Shakespeare Cliff, Dover, Kent, England, UK

Selected for Google Maps and Google Earth

Derived from United States Library of Congress photomechanical print dated circa 1890-1900. Intriguing lattice tower or mast in the distance: Marconi made 1st ship to shore radio transmission from nearby South Foreland Lighthouse in 1898, French government didn't allow wireless telegraphy across English Channel until 1899. What and when could it be? White Cliffs of Dover history.

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John Latter on March 24, 2013

The dotted black line pointing towards the water's edge is an overflow or discharge pipe. A man sits astride it on the right-hand side with the erect posture of someone who is reading. At least one figure is standing on the left-hand side of the railway tracks just above the bottom of the photo (another figure may be bent over from the waist.

Another photo in this set shows what may be a more familiar view of the White Cliffs of Dover:

Victorian Colour Photo of the White Cliffs of Dover, United Kingdom

The remainder of these notes are taken from the caption to a modern day view of Shakespeare Cliff:

King Lear and Shakespeare Cliff, White Cliffs of Dover, Kent, United Kingdom

A view of Shakespeare Cliff and beach from near what is now near A20 roundabout junction with the South Military Road on the Western Heights. See all photos of the White Cliffs of Dover.

The headland jutting out into the English Channel, previously known as Hay Cliff, Hay Hill, and with various alternate spellings ("Shakespeare Cliffe", "Shakspere Cliff", etc.), marks the point where Great Britain most closely approaches continental Europe (France).

The cliff was renamed as a result of William Shakespeare's references to it in his tragedy, King Lear (based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman Celtic king).

King Lear

Act IV, Scene I ("The Heath") (1):


Dost thou know Dover?


Ay, master.


There is a cliff, whose high and bending head Looks fearfully in the confined deep: Bring me but to the very brim of it, And I'll repair the misery thou dost bear With something rich about me: from that place I shall no leading need.


Give me thy arm: Poor Tom shall lead thee.

In Act IV, Scene VI ("Fields near Dover") (2), Edgar has deceived the blinded Gloucester into believing he is on the edge of Shakespeare Cliff:


Come on, sir; here's the place: stand still. How fearful And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eyes so low! The crows and choughs that wing the midway air Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade! Methinks he seems no bigger than his head: The fishermen, that walk upon the beach, Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark, Diminish'd to her cock; her cock, a buoy Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge, That on the unnumber'd idle pebbles chafes, Cannot be heard so high. I'll look no more; Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight Topple down headlong.


Set me where you stand.


Give me your hand: you are now within a foot Of the extreme verge: for all beneath the moon Would I not leap upright.


Let go my hand...

Shakespeare's mention of samphire gatherers prompts a diversion from literature to an example of the plant life which abounds on the chalk grasslands and even on the cliff face. The Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum), a native perennial with small yellow florets, was once a favourite vegetable, the leaves and stalk were cooked and eaten like asparagus. Samphire gatherers collected the plant by attaching themselves to a rope suspended from the cliff top. In 1768 a highwayman escaped from confinement in Dover Castle by way of a rope left by a samphire gatherer at the top of the Castle cliffs.

Samphire Hoe and the Channel Tunnel

Samphire Hoe, the newest part of Kent made from 4.9 million cubic metres of chalk marl dug to create the modern Channel Tunnel (French: Le tunnel sous la Manche, the "Chunnel"), is a Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and located on the far side of Shakespeare Cliff.

A previous attempt at constructing a channel tunnel was made in 1881 when British railway entrepreneur Sir Edward William Watkin and French Suez Canal contractor Alexandre Lavalley were in the "Anglo-French Submarine Railway Company" that conducted exploratory work on both sides of the Channel. On the English side a 2.13-metre (7 ft) diameter Beaumont-English boring machine dug a 1,893-metre (6,211 ft) pilot tunnel from Shakespeare Cliff. On the French side, a similar machine dug 1,669 m (5,476 ft) from Sangatte.

Elsewhere in the photo

Shakespeare Beach in the foreground (mainly pebbles, of course!) extends behind the viewer to the Admiralty Pier of Dover Harbour.

Today, there is a footbridge across the railway line at the bottom of a zig-zag path leading down the cliff-face from the Aycliffe ("Hay Cliff") area of Dover.

An 1842 description of the railway tunnels going through Shakespeare Cliff states:

By a double tunnel through Shakspere's Cliff, we mean a tunnel arranged on the principle of the Thames Tunnel, one archway being devoted to carriages proceeding from east to west, and the other for those passing from west to east. These parallel arches or tunnels are neither circular nor elliptical, as usually constructed, but pointed Gothic, each arch being thirty feet high by twelve wide.

At certain intervals there arc lateral communications from one archway to the other. From the level of the tunnels to the summit of the cliff seven vertical shafts ascend, about six feet in diameter, and varying from about a hundred and sixty to two hundred feet high ; each arch descending to one of the lateral communications from tunnel to tunnel.

More extracts from this Victorian account will be appended to a close-up photo of the tunnel entrances (check later "Comments" for the link).

The railway line connects Dover Priory Railway Station (behind) to Folkestone (in front).

Geology of the White Cliffs of Dover (3)

The cliffs are composed mainly of soft, white chalk with a very fine-grained texture, composed primarily of coccoliths, plates of calcium carbonate formed by coccolithophores, single-celled planktonic algae whose skeletal remains sank to the bottom of the ocean and, together with the remains of bottom-living creatures, formed sediments. Flint and quartz are also found in the chalk.

White cliffs like those of Dover (but smaller) are also found on the Danish islands of Møn (at Møn Klint, "The Cliffs of Møn", alt. Mon) and Langeland or the coasts of the island of Rügen (Rugen) in Germany. The cliff face continues to erode at an average rate of 1 centimetre (0.39 in) per year, although occasionally large pieces will fall.

This most recently occurred in January, 2011, when the Daily Mail newspaper reported (4):

The White Cliffs of Dover are the first glimpse of home for millions of British travellers each year and even inspired a classic wartime song (Vera Lynn's, "There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover").

But the famous cliffs are under threat from freezing winters, demonstrated by a huge fall of rock that almost crushed a busy pub in St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, Kent. An estimated 90,000 tons of chalk smashed into the English Channel 100 yards from the Coastguard pub as drinkers sat inside, the second huge rockfall this year.

Diving, Ecology, and Marine Life (5)

Shakespeare Bay 51.10309N 001.287582E:

Close to shore in the bay between Dover Harbour and Samphire Hoe, at about 2m below extreme low tide level, is an area of very large chalk boulders with deep crevices and overhangs. Under the boulders is a chalk platform, heavily bored by bivalve piddocks, and with scattered large red algae, and a patchy cover of sand, readily shifted by wave surge and currents. Close in to shore are scattered kelps of 3 species, with red, green and brown algae growing on and around them, collections of tiny blue-rayed limpets graze on their fronds, and a common eel was spotted breaking the cover they provide. Beyond the kelp zone, red seaweeds grow on the tops of the boulders, and sponges, hydroids and sea mats grow on the shaded sides.

Shakespeare Bay Reef 51.09845N 001.315819E:

Further out into Shakespeare Bay, in around 25m of water, the chalk platform and chalk boulders continue, in places forming series of small steps and ledges, and in places covered with a mix of sand, pebbles and cobbles. Small mounds of sandy tubes have been created by colonies of ross worms. The greater depth provides insufficient light for any seaweed growth, but the exposed chalk is all heavily bored by piddocks and there is a turf of attached animals including several types of anemones, bryozoans, and sea squirts, along with starfish, and a variety of large and small crabs, bib and wrasse.


(1) The Tech (MIT): King Lear, Act IV, Scene I

(2) The Tech (MIT): King Lear, Act IV, Scene VI

(3) Wikipedia entry for White Cliffs of Dover (Abridged)

(4) All over for the White Cliffs of Dover? Fears for historic landmark as severe winters cause huge rockfalls (Abridged)

(5) From Kent Seasearch Summary 2007

John Latter / Jorolat

Dover Blog: The Psychology of a Small Town

This is the Images of Dover website: click on any red or blue "John Latter" link to access the Entry Page.

David Guruli on May 22, 2014

Very beautiful view.
Wonderful capture.
Best regards from Georgia, David.

John Latter on May 22, 2014

Thank you, David - Greetings from Dover, England!

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on March 24, 2013
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Taken on 2013/03/24 02:09:59