White Cliffs of Dover & Sandwich Dunes 7th May 2016

The National Trust own the path from above Dover port all the way to the South Foreland Lighthouse near St. Margarets at Cliffe. It's an amazing stretch of chalk grassland where there is always plenty to see. The vast open expanse, cliff edges, Dover port, wartime installations and of course France!

As we walked along the path from the National Trust car park I kept a look out for the rare Early Spider Orchid which favours poor soil on chalk. I quickly found some but they were behind a fence on a near vertical slope so no photos could be taken. I hoped I would find some more on the walk later.

Right by the car park was some Herb Robert, but the flowers were all white which I've only seen in one other place in Kent.

Geranium robertianum

I decided to walk close to the cliff edge within sensible reason of course! This area was most likely to have rarer plants through lack of competition from vigourous species.

This is a Wallflower which as its name suggests can cope with dry exposed conditions such as those found here on the cliffs.

Erysimum cheiri

Horseshoe Vetch was flowering all over the cliffs, a vital plant for some Blue butterflies which will appear in numbers soon.

The flowers on this particular pea flower form a semi circle, hence its name. They are declining rapidly in England thanks to habitat destruction and ploughing up or scrubbing over of chalk grasslands

Hippocrepis comosa

Yellow flowers seemed to dominate at the moment. This is the small Common Rockrose, a classic flower of chalk grasslands, whcih is also declining so fast it is now on the Kent Rare Plant Register (RPR) so its decline can be monitored and hopefully stopped.

Helianthemum nummularium

There were many of these Wall Butterflies flitting around, a rare insect now unfortunately. I've only seen them in Cliffe in North Kent and nearby Samphire Hoe and then only just the one each time!

This was the closest I could get. With open wings they have bright orange and black markings and look fantastic.

Common Milkwort grew in abundance, but, most are very small and easily missed. Their flowers can also be white or purple. They are unique in having a flower come out of a flower (put simply). Butterflies feed on their nectar such as the Skippers in my last blog post.

Polygala vulgaris

Langdon Hole is a large area normally full of wildflowers. There were hardly any now due to grazing by these NT ponies. Sometimes all year grazing is necessary to control scrub from taking over the grasslands. Hopefully the ponies will be rotated next year and Langdon Hole will bloom again fabulously.

This is Hoary Stock, an RPR species in Kent. I've only seen it on the cliffs at Ramsgate. It's related to the Stock flowers that you buy from a garden centre, but these can survive extremes and have very woody tree like stems.

Matthiola incana

These look similar to the Horeshoe Vetch, but they are Birdsfoot Trefoil, a related plant. They are usually low growing, mat forming with 3 to 5 flowers and aren't in a defined shape like the Horseshoe Vetch. They are also very common and found all over the UK

Lotus corniculatus

We then had a welcome break out of the hot sun at Fan Point tunnels and Sound Mirrors. Recently opened by the National Trust they are a must see attraction. You really get the feel of World War II and what it must have been like stationed there.
The sound mirrors predate radar and can also be found at Greatstone and Hythe. Yours truly pictured.

Homo sapiens Davidii

Here's one of the tunnels! Bill, the guide was very knowledgable and brought the tunnels alive with his stories.


Dotted here and there were Wild Cabbages, also on the RPR though very common where they do grow. This is another plant rapidly declining, but this time it's due to sea defence works all around the coast wiping them out as shingle is incessantly moved around each Winter by EA bulldozers.

Brassica oleracea var oleracea

Hardly noticable in the grasses were Salad Burnets. These plants have edible leaves as the name suggests with female flowers on top and male flowers below.

Once open the male flowers look like curtains hanging down each side of the plant.

Poterium sanguisorba

Another pea family member flowering was Kidney Vetch, another Blue butterfly must have.

These are easily recognisable by its cotton wool like hairs around the flower head.

Anthyllis vulneraria

 Here's a secret beach! There's a path down to it but there was a sign saying closed due to cliff fall. It would be great if it was reopened.

These are Perennial Wall Rocket plants, another Cabbage Family member. The flowers in this plant family all have 4 petals mostly all yellow. It's important to examine the stem and leaves to identify them properly.

I also found some Eastern Rocket further on.

Diplotaxis tenuifolia

I was very pleased to find some Nottingham Catchfly which I've only ever seen in the Dungeness area before. This is another RPR species.

Its petals are rolled up during the day but in dim conditions and overnight they fully open. They are pollinated I believe, mostly by moths and are related to the Red and White Campions which are much more common.

Silene nutans

As we approached South Foreland lighthouse I was very pleased to find more Hoary Stock but this time it was an all white flowered variant.

 Matthiola incana var. alba

These were quite few in number but are also nationally scarce and on the Kent RPR. It's a Sainfoin plant, another pea family member, only about 6" tall.

The countryside is full of large agricultural varieties of this species (up to 4' tall) but the small prostrate native type is very rare.

Onobrychis vicfolia

 Not all these type of plants are Dandelions!
This is a Mouse-ear Hawkweed, a common plant on chalk. It's flowers are more of a pale lemon colour, it has orange to red stripes on the underside of the petals and it gets its name from the long white hairs on its mouse ear shaped leaves.

Pilosella officinarum

All along were some nice views downwards! Just be sensible about how you approach the edges. I had a telephoto lens so could get close ups of plants and views without endangering myself.

After all, if I fell off the cliff I had the car keys in my pocket and how would the others with me get home?

On a serious note, no plant, insect, bird or view is worth risking your life for, take care!

Just before arriving at the lighthouse I finally found an Early Spider Orchid. Unfortunately it was way past its best, but it was a new botanical record for this square according to the BSBI atlas.

We had a nice cream tea at the National Trust cafe by the lighthouse and cooled off a bit. We then took a much easier walk back along field edges further inland. On the way there wasn't too many arable weeds to find as much of it had been sprayed with herbicides.

Field corners often escape the sprays and here I found many Field Violets, very small but beautiful. Even the stems are purple hued.

Viola arvensis

A few Sun Spurge also survived the pesticides, a pretty plant. You may recognise it as like a miniature version of a garden plant. That's because many Euphorbias have been brought from all over the world into gardens for their petal-less blooms which insects love by the way.

Euphorbia helioscopia

This Field Madder is the last arable plant I photographed, the petals just a few mm across. Sometimes the leaves turn purple and the flowers may be lilac as well.

Sherardia arvensis

Once back at Langdon Hole I decided to take the lower old tramway path back to the car park which meant rather a lot of steep hills to climb up and down, but I hoped I might find some orchids there.

This view is a big hole in the cliff, I don't think a tram could make this gradient!

Once again the cliff edge proved best for flowers and variety, with me spotting many of the flowers already mentioned.

This is Common Centaury, a common plant on chalk but due to rabbit grazing was very small. Their flowers are usually a pale pink but I have found white forms in the past.

Centaureum erythraea

As I made my way along back towards the port I was delighted to find several groups of Early Spider Orchids, some still looking fresh like this one.

This is a known site, so isn't remarkable but I was pleased to have found them in all three Ordnance Survey squares between Dover and South Foreland.

They weren't that hard to see here, about 8-10" tall silhouetted against the path edge above the port. As with many orchids they are an RPR species, mainly found on the South coast but a few inland as well.

Ophrys sphegodes

What the orchid photos can't show is the ever present drone of lorries driving on and off the ferries. You're almost directly above the port here and the air quality isn't that good either, with the deisel fumes from lorries and smoke from ferries combined.

That was it for Dover, we then went to Deal for some dinner and had a brief stop at Sandwich Dunes on the way home.

The Sandwich area is well known for its large population of Lizard Orchids. I wondered if I might be lucky enough to find one with a flower out but it was not to be. In fact the rosettes were retarded compared to those I have seen inland and looked in poor condition, maybe due to recent frost damage?
Anyway, we drove along the coastal road very slowly and found a beautiful stand of pink flowers that looked at first glance like wild onions or garlic of some kind.

These turned out to be Rosy Garlic, not native but uncommon in the wild and the first I've seen.

There were hundreds of them in several large drifts along the roadside.

 Allium roseum

These, at first glance, looked like Field Mouse-ear, an uncommon wildflower. However, the leaves were silvery grey revealing them to be the related but escaped garden plant, Snow-in-Summer.
There are large amounts of these growing in the dunes at Camber Sands as well.

Cerastium tomentosum

We then noticed little purple flowered plants in the short turf, so I stopped the car and investigated. I was very pleased to find a good number of these, Green Winged Orchids.

These are a beautiful compact orchid, not endangered but rare nonetheless, only found in a handful of places in Kent.

This was a delightul two tone pastel coloured variety. Sometimes you can find all white flowered ones but not today.

Notice the green lines or veines along the side petals, this is the easiest way to tell them apart from the superficially similar Early Purple Orchids.

The dots on the petals are usualy ill defined and pale but on this plant they were very bold, quite unusual for this orchid.

Anacamptis morio

There was a public footpath across a nearby golf course so I had a little wander along it and found many more Green Winged Orchids and stands of these Wild Clary, yet another rarity on the RPR.

I have a colony of these locally to me in North Kent at Bean, but they are usually quite small. These ones were much taller, some over 2 feet tall.

They have the most exquisite flowers and colouring and are always a pleasure to see.

Salvia verbenaca


That was about it for this day and what a day out it was, with many fantastic wildflowers and butterflies seen, along with some stunning views across the Channel.
I came home with a souvenier as well, sunburn!

I'll be back down to South East Kent soon!

@Barbus59 (Twitter)


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