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 iconic 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 upon which we have projected our national story.
As a child on a wave tossed ferry, reeking of diesel, they meant home and release from the tyranny of seasickness. Until the advent of aircraft a huge number of travellers arriving in Britain would have been greeted by the White Cliffs. They were seen and recognised by the crews of the millions of ships that have used Europe’s busiest shipping lanes for millenia. During the First World War British soldiers returning on leave from the Western Front yearned to see them, as confirmation that they were truly leaving the hell behind them and would see their homes once more. Bomber crews in the Second World War glimpsed them on a moonlit night, a ribbon of silver demarking the start of territory that remained free from 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 and fight again.
The cliffs welcome and reassure but they have roared defiance. Despots like Bonaparte and Hitler have gazed across the narrows. The only site of their implacable enemy was the line of cliffs like barred teeth on the horizon, the manifestation of a stubborn island nation that would not be beaten into submission. From the cartoons of Gillray and his contemporaries, to the paintings of Turner and Dame Vera Lynn’s anthemic World War Two smash hit, the cliffs have been an instantly recognisable metaphor for Britishness.
The cliffs have played this role long before the great wars of the last two centuries. Caesar himself commented on them in his Commentarii De Bello Gallico, the first eye-witness account of Britain that survives in literature. His first impression was of a wild island with giant natural fortification. In 55BC his first 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 strong position he sailed north and landed on 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 alike, have followed in Caesar’s footsteps. Henry II enlarged Dover Castle and created one of the world’s supreme medieval strongholds, its defences taking full advantage of the precipitous cliffs. Twice, the invading French were unable to penetrate the walls and seize what was rightly known as ‘the key to England.’ Monarchs such as Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth stayed there for a nervous foreign princess, like Henrietta Maria, the cliffs and the castle were her very 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 which are older than the name of Britain, a Roman lighthouse towering three stories high, the castle, Second World War radar masts, the world’s first, which allowed the RAF to see beyond the horizon and meet the German raids head on with Spitfires and Hurricanes, the first electric lighthouse in the world on South Foreland, where Marconi carried out the first ever international radio transmission.
There is nowhere better on this island to ponder our past, with its contradictory mix of cooperation and defiance, of Englishness, Britishness and Europeaness, than the meadows atop the White Cliffs. That is why I’m involved with a National Trust campaign to take advantage of an opportunity to acquire a key section of the White Cliffs. This not only means the actual cliffs themselves but also the stunning land on top of them. This will ensure that the cliffs 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 the national icon. We must seize this chance to secure them for future generations to enjoy. Now 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 National Trust motto, ‘for everyone, forever.’
This article first appeared in The Times on Wednesday 27 June