It’s a vast, ancient, unique place: impossible to catch in photographs. It can be terrifying: people die in chalk falls or are washed away by stormy tides from the sea edge and foolhardy divers misjudge the depths to hit the rocks below. It is more often the most beautiful place on earth; wide blue skies, fresh salt air, thousands of chalk grassland, woodland and seaside wild flowers in spring and not a soul in sight or any sound apart from the crash of the waves or the yawping of gulls.
I’ve gone there for ever to pick blackberries and, more recently, sloes for homemade gin. On a clear day you can see buildings on the cliffs of France, just twenty miles away. High above you on the edge of the chalk and clay English cliffs, a Roman villa is sliding, inch by inch, into the sea. Martello Towers keep us safe from Napoleonic invasion and a young Second World War pilot looks for ever out on to the horizon.
There are fossils by the bucketload and rockpools full of crabs, anemones and mussels. Grasses rustle with newts and the occasional adder. Somewhere there is a buried rabbit, a toy lost by my brother more than 40 years ago. He comes here too, sometimes, to sleep, on the not infrequent times that he falls between the gaps in the welfare state.
It is a never-ending delight that my favourite novel, Riddley Walker by the sainted Russell Hoban, is set here and in the countryside around. The Warren becomes The Warnings as Riddley seeks to find out about his world. A book of strange and unsettling beauty, just like the Warren.
Every so often there are attempts to carve out safer steps, put up handrails and tame the place. Even when I’m too old to climb down safely over the rocks and would be glad of a more accessible path, I selfishly hope that never happens.