The British have long had unique views on foreign travel and relationships with other countries, and I feel when stand on the white cliffs overlooking Dover Harbour you can see why. On a clear day the French cliffs are clearly visible on the horizon. And before the Channel Tunnel was built you would see a trail of white dots all the way across as the frequent ferries make their way back and forth between Dover and the Continental ports.
Britain is an island. Crossing a border is not driving to Lacolle and being friendly to the border agents. It takes planning, tickets and, if you take your car, a bit of preparation to drive on the other side of the road. Yet it is accessible. You can see the other side, just the famous 21 miles away. Just an hour and a half in a boat. People regularly swim across. So close, yet so far.
Of course in the 50 years since my photo showing the French cliffs foreign travel has changed enormously. Using the Channel Tunnel is a bit like the London Tube—
you dive down a hole in one culture and pop out in another without ever seeing the sea, or experiencing the change. In the '60s the middle classes would use the Dover crossing as the only affordable route to take their family to France and beyond. But now it's cheaper and faster to fly to Prague than to hop on a ferry at Dover and cross to Calais
As I grew up, visiting Dover was an annual experience for my family. The castle and cliffs were always of interest and we tended to finish the day having our tea on one of the tracks on the cliffs overlooking the ferry terminal so we could watch the boats arrive and depart. And watching was all we could afford until 1970 when we finally headed off from Dover to Zeebrugge
, Belgium, on a midnight sailing to spend two weeks touring as much of the Continent as we could manage with our recently home-built tent trailer.
We followed that up at Easter 1972 when we crossed to Ostend
on a short visit to my aunt and uncle at RAF Laarbruch on the German-Dutch border. We stopped off in Rotterdam to drop my grandmother with some friends who had been neighbours during the war—
her only ever trip outside of Britain.
Then in 1974 my girlfriend and I set off on a 7 week continental camping tour in my Mini. We had booked the Sealink hovercraft over to Boulogne and arrived in Dover good and early—early enough to be offered a place on the previous crossing, which we declined wanting to be able to enjoy the hovercraft. But despite being the first in line we were boarded last as our car was the smallest, and so we ended up being seated well away from the windows and each other, with zero enjoyment of the crossing. The rest of the seven weeks was great though, and we returned to Dover on a regular boat from Ostend.
Increasing affluence led to a steadily increasing cross channel fleet at Dover and other Channel ports, and faster craft like the SR-N4 hovercraft and catamarans added a premium service. But then the Channel Tunnel and discount airlines started taking away the traffic, and the ferry business declined again. Dover's port is still busy, but now long-distance articulated lorries (semi-trailer trucks) fill much of the capacity.
But Dover itself is even more interesting to visit. We didn't realise as we sat and ate our tea on the cliffs back in the 60s that underneath us was a warren old tunnels dug during the second world war to house various military needs for the protection of Dover and the rest of the UK. These eventually became declassified and some opened to the public—well worth a visit.
And you can still take your tea on the cliffs above, but now there is a National Trust tea room there to supply you!