Wartime tunnels open at the White Cliffs of Dover

Second World War tunnels built on the orders of Winston Churchill underneath the White Cliffs of Dover, have opened to visitors for the first time following a two-year conservation project involving over 50 volunteers.

Fan Bay Deep Shelter, for blog post, credit Richard Crowhurst Corvidae (1)

Fan Bay Deep Shelter. Copyright National Trust, credit Richard Crowhurst Corvidae

Fan Bay Deep Shelter was built in the 1940s as part of Dover’s offensive and defensive gun batteries, which were designed to prevent German ships moving freely in the English Channel. The shelter was personally inspected by Winston Churchill in June 1941.

Carved out of the chalk cliffs, the shelter accommodated four officers and up to 185 men of other ranks during bombardments in five bomb-proof chambers and also had a hospital and secure store. It was decommissioned in the 1950s and filled in two decades later.

Continue reading


Blooming Manchester snowdrops commemorate those who fell in the First World War

Thousands of snowdrops, the symbol of hope and endurance, are now in bloom across Manchester City centre as a poignant reminder of the First World War.

Joe Williams (left) and Sean Harkin, the National Trust's urban gardener in residence inspect the snowdrops now in bloom across Manchester to mark the fallen in the First World War.  Credit Emma WIlliams

Joe Williams (left) and Sean Harkin, the National Trust’s urban gardener in residence inspect the snowdrops now in bloom across Manchester to mark the fallen in the First World War. Credit Emma WIlliams

Continue reading

New garden created by an army of volunteers opens to commemorate First World War

A new half an acre garden of reflection created by 60 volunteers over the past eight months, opens today at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, marking the centenary of Great Britain’s intervention in the First World War. Continue reading

Celebrating a century of roses at Bodnant Garden

Bodnant Garden near Conwy in North Wales is marking the centenary of its grand terraces, famous for their rose gardens, lily pools and stunning mountain views with a special rose planting and a poignant public appeal about those who worked on the terraces and went on to serve in the First World War. Continue reading

Weekly Witter: The Behrends and art of the First World War

The National Trust has a varied and stimulating schedule of events planned for the commemoration of World War I. It has given me the opportunity to look at our painting collections and their relevance to the Great War, although actually we have very little Modern British art in our properties. This is mainly because the families who donated or bequeathed their estates to the Trust simply weren’t in a position to commission avant-garde works of art at a time when everyone was living in straightened circumstances. Houses had been requisitioned as hospitals, servants were laid off and rationing was in force. Moreover, these aristocratic families were compelled to prioritise maintaining the fabric of their vast houses over the commissioning of works of art.

There is one stellar exception in Trust collections, which is arguably one of the greatest glories of art in Northern Europe, and one of the most magnificent examples of Modern British mural painting. Sandham Memorial Chapel was painted by Stanley Spencer, and records his personal wartime experiences, which are notable for their domestic rather than combative emphasis. The paintings will play a major role in the Trust’s events schedule later this year (watch the press for further announcements!).

“The chapel was described as ‘one of the most enlightened acts of patronage that ever happened to an artist’.”

The chapel was funded by John Louis (1881-1972) and Mary (1883-1977) Behrend, who did not hail from an aristocratic pile, but were distinctly ‘non-Establishment’. They are the forgotten heroes of the Modern British art scene and played a huge role in nurturing creative genius in all the arts, from music, to literature, to painting. The chapel was described as ‘one of the most enlightened acts of patronage that ever happened to an artist’, and yet the Behrends have been largely forgotten in the mists of time, in favour of some of the more self-publicising patrons. They are important because they had the money, the taste and the courage, which was a powerful combination.

Spencer at Burghclere

Spencer at Burghclere

“It was indeed an exceptional partnership and atypical of the usual patron/artist dynamic; for example, Mary insisted that they did not commission the chapel – rather it was all Stanley’s idea.”

John Louis came from a rich Jewish family, which had made its money from dealing in cotton seed in Egypt, chartering ships on the Baltic exchange in London, and milling rice, which was sold in large Hessian sacks stamped with the name BEHREND. He and his wife Mary built up a considerable collection of pictures of diverse subject-matter and style, many of which were by Spencer himself. They also owned works by Henry Lamb, Walter Sickert, Victor Pasmore, Edward Burra and Augustus John, to name to few. Many of their pictures now hang on the walls of national museums. Their main residence was the Grey House at Burghclere, the same village which houses the memorial chapel. This became a convening point for the many artistically-minded friends, of diverse disciplines, that they had made. Set against a backdrop of walls densely-packed with paintings, they hosted the likes of Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Henry Lamb, Marie Rambert, Eric Newton, as well – of course – Stanley Spencer.

The Behrends found creativity exciting and alluring. How else would they have otherwise dealt with what was a fairly complicated relationship with Stanley? They had no formal contract, and endured the ups-and-downs of the process with unfailing good grace. I have recently found some letters written by Mary towards the end of her life in which she comments on the longevity of her relationship with Spencer. It was indeed an exceptional partnership and atypical of the usual patron/artist dynamic; for example, Mary insisted that they did not commission the chapel – rather it was all Stanley’s idea. What has become clear during my research on the Behrends is that by the time the chapel was being created, they were not nearly so well-off as they had been. On the death of his father and uncle, John Louis only inherited one third of the family business. The family were smarting from his conversion to Christianity when he married Mary. In light of this, both ideologically and financially, the chapel was doubly courageous. After the war, the Behrend rice mills were sold and the Behrends lived in considerably straightened circumstances. The chapel became increasingly expensive to maintain, and it was given, with an endowment, to the National Trust in 1947. Their fortune may have dwindled, but they left a far richer legacy in the brave, outlandish and beautiful ‘Holy Box’ that is Sandham.

  •  Amanda Bradley, Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Let’s all take over the White Cliffs of Dover – Dan Snow

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