Survival on the white Cliffs of Dover this weekend, but only just

Posted in SharonSpeak on March 8th, 2010 by Sharon Feinstein

I never imagined I’d be battling against a wind chill factor of minus 6 when I set out across the white cliffs of Dover this weekend. It’s a spectacular walk and the outline of France was brilliantly clear, the big ferries moving slowly and silently across the Channel, and foamy waves crashing down on the shingle beaches below. For a while the sheer beauty and effort of battling against the bracing wind obscured how incredibly cold it was. We brushed past yellow gorse, and up slopes of mossy grass pitted into strange shapes that seemed to mirror the choppy brown sea shapes below. But as we carried on the wind picked up and started to roar with an iciness that sliced into my ears, down my neck and held my sunglasses so tightly to my face the pressure became unbearable. There was nothing we could do except battle on. How weird that we’d just been discussing a book called The Third Man Factor, which describes how explorers pushed to their absolute limits often seem to hear a voice out of nowhere guiding them to safety and keeping up their spirits so that they don’t lie down and die. I’m not comparing our trivial hardship on the cliffs of Dover to Reinhold Messner on Mount Everest or Shackleton in the Antarctic, before you start scoffing. But seriously, it was so bitterly cold, with a raging wind pounding against us and making each step seem as though we were pummelling through a wall of water, that I nearly started crying at the thought of all the miles we still had left to walk. No Third Man came to me, that sudden presence that can appear when a person is overcome with weakness and hopelessness in the zone between life and death. But the experience has occurred many people, 9/11 survivors, mountaineers, divers, polar explorers, prisoners of war, solo sailors, aviators and astronauts. All have escaped traumatic events and told similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a helper or guardian.
Maybe it wasn’t such a coincidence that this extreme walk was happening across the famous white cliffs, within which lies a huge network of military tunnels in use since Napoleonic times. It was from these tunnels in May 1940 that the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk was directed and 338,000 men saved .Throughout World War 2 the tunnels were used as command headquarters, controlling naval vessels in the Straits of Dover. There are so many people who’ve died and so many been saved on this spot, it’s not surprising that the theme carries on.
We survived, and headed for a fabulous pub on the beach called The Coastguard where I consumed a bottle of Chianti, a Dover sole of course, plate of chips, vegetables, bread, a huge cheese platter and around 20 oatcakes without stopping, during which we barely spoke a single word.

Image of Cliffs of Dover