Dan’s written a piece about the White Cliffs for The Times which can be found on the Times website as well as in today’s paper.
Let’s all take over the White Cliffs of Dover;
Help us to protect the sight that has said ‘home’ to returning travellers over the centuries
Landscape can be totemic. The Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and Table Mountain have all come to symbolise the spirit of their nations. The UK is blessed with several features that, to the romantically inclined observer, seem to reflect back something about ourselves, our history and character. We have the Giant’s Causeway, the Great Glen and Cadair Idris, but few places loom as large in our collective consciousness as the White Cliffs of Dover. The brilliant white chalk has served for generations as a canvas on which we project our national story.
When I was a child on a wave-tossed ferry reeking of diesel, the cliffs meant home and release from the tyranny of seasickness. Before the aged of aircraft, huge numbers of travellers arriving in Britain were greeted by the cliffs. They were recognised by the crews of the millions of ships that have used Europe’s busiest shipping lanes for millennia. In the First World War British soldiers returning from the Western Front yearned to see them, as confirmation that they were truly leaving hell behind them and would see their homes once more. Bomber crews in the Second World War glimpsed them on moonlit nights, a ribbon of silver marking the start of territory that remained free of the Nazi yoke. In 1940 a shattered Army carried in frigates, ferries, barges, paddle steamers and tenders from the cauldron of Dunkirk saw the cliffs and knew they would live to fight again.
The cliffs welcome and reassure but they have also roared defiance. Despots such as Bonaparte and Hitler have gazed across the narrows. The only sight of their implacable enemy was the line of cliffs like bared teeth on the horizon – the manifestation of a stubborn island nation that would not be beaten into submission. From the cartoons of Gillray to the paintings of Turner and Dame Vera Lynn’s Second World War anthem the White Cliffs are an instantly recognisable metaphor for Britishness.
The cliffs were playing this role long before the wars of the past two centuries. Julius Caesar commented on them in De Bello Gallico, the first eye-witness account of Britain in literature. His first impression was of a wild island with giant natural fortification. In 55BC his expedition was met by “armed forces of the enemy on all the cliffs”. They rained javelins down on any ship that approached the shore. Disinclined to assault such a position, Caesar sailed north to a more open beach. The Britons had tracked his forces and met his legionaries as they staggered out of the shallows, making this first recorded invasion the only opposed one in our history.
Many travellers, conquerors and tourists have followed in Caesar’s footsteps. Henry II enlarged Dover Castle to create one of the world’s supreme medieval strongholds, taking full advantage of the precipitous cliffs. Twice the invading French were unable to penetrate its walls and seize “the key to England”. Monarchs such as Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth stayed there and for the nervous foreign princess Henrietta Maria the cliffs and castle were the first taste of a country that she would preside over as Queen.
A walk along the cliffs today is a walk through the layers of our history: mighty ramparts older than the name of Britain itself; a towering Roman lighthouse; the castle; Second World War radar masts, the world’s first, which allowed the RAF to meet German raids head on with Spitfires and Hurricanes; the world’s first electric lighthouse on South Foreland, where Marconi made the first international radio transmission.
There is nowhere better on this island to ponder our past, with its contradictory mix of co-operation and defiance, of Englishness, Britishness and European-ness, than the meadows atop the White Cliffs. That is why I am involved with a National Trust campaign to take advantage of an opportunity to acquire a key section of the White Cliffs, and not just the actual cliffs but also the stunning land on top of them. This will ensure that they are a place we can all visit, lie among the wildflowers and stare out to sea.
Access will be guaranteed and conservation implemented. The National Trust is creating a truly public space on top of this national icon. We must seize this chance to secure them for future generations to enjoy. We have a chance to shape the destiny of the cliffs, as profoundly as the Plantagenet kings, the Victorian Army or the wartime engineers. This year we can take them into our own hands and protect them, in the words of the Trust’s motto, “for everyone, for ever”.
Dan Snow is a broadcaster, television presenter and historian nationaltrust.org.uk/whitecliffsappeal
The cliffs welcome and reassure, but they also roar defiance