Writing The White Cliffs

This year, Britain’s National Trust handed a writer a pearl of great price.

Tell you what, they said to writer and philosopher Julian Baggini. Stay at the South Foreland Lighthouse, on the top of the White Cliffs Of Dover, for a week. Contemplate the White Cliffs, and what they mean to the British nation. And then, write down what you found out.

The residency took place from August 20 for a week, the week we were there to fly kites at South Foreland and potter around Dover. It is part of a drive to raise £1.2 million to buy a stretch of the cliffs which would complete a five-mile coastal track open to the public.

WordPress is the White Cliffs blogging platform of choice: here is Baggini’s site. He explores what he sees in front of him, this philosopher who grew up in the area, and in his final pamphlet published this week, At Home On The Rockhe draws links between the cliffs and the asylum seekers who sail for our shores, and questions whether they see the cliffs as a barrier;  he tells tiny snatches of history, and he says the Cliffs are a symbol which could unite Britain.”We can and should build an open, inclusive, generous and hospitable patriotism, and we can lay the foundation stone for it on the White Cliffs of Dover.”

When I see those Cliffs, my heart swells.

Not because of symbolism: not because of reasoned argument; but because of story.

Story is the thing that catches our hearts and sends us soaring, up from our existence to travel in time and space and viewpoint. Story changes every ability, every age, every class.

And this place: because we have lived in it so long, it is drenched, saturated, in story.

This is where Henry II built his fortress, to look down with nervous tetchy surveillance on the pilgrims drawn by the assassination of Thomas Becket – an assassination on his watch.

This is where Jarvis Lorry and Lucie Manette met to begin their journey across the Channel in Dickens’ Tale Of Two Cities. Above these cliffs men skirmished in spitfires and lost their lives; on them they painted their faces to terrify invaders; inside them they built a honeycomb of tunnels to repel Napoleon, and Hitler, and finally – in papers made public only this year – to retreat from holocaust in a nuclear bunker, built in their very heart, on Dumpy level of the secret tunnels.

They look out on treacherous sands and ghost-ships, host to a white lighthouse which seduced the scientists of the 19th century, Michael Faraday and Guglielmo Marconi. It was Christmas Eve when Marconi sent his assistant to shiver on the Goodwin Sands light ship, to receive wireless messages in a test.

Squint from the docks and you will see, high on the cliffs, the railings which border a look-out: a platform entrance to the secret tunnels, where have stood some of our most colourful heroes. Winston Churchill knew the cliffs well. He ordered the firing of the guns on at least one occasion. And Admiral Ramsay, a hero every British child should know, stood, heart in mouth,watching the little ships as they returned from Dunkirk full of traumatised soldiers.

It is not through cerebral analysis that our Cliffs can finally come to be valued. It is through the litany of fairy tales which surround it. Then, England will turn and look at them, blinking in surprise and say: were you this beautiful all along? How could I have missed you, all this time?

The power of the cliffs- the power which has not yet been fully unleashed – is the power of their story. It is through the tales that surround the white chalk sentinels that the £1.2 million can be raised, and the cliffs raised from simply the thing you see when you get home, surrounded by docks and industry and frankly, a poor and undervalued area –  to a cherished possession.

And that story, so far, remains to be told to the 21st century.


47 thoughts on “Writing The White Cliffs

  1. I recall visiting Varengeville-sur-Mer, Normandy, and looking down to the sea from their white cliffs, much like our own. It was a reflective moment remembering that they were once attached.
    I am now off to read At Home On The Rock.

  2. Love your view of the White Cliffs. In fact, I love a view of them, full stop. I have related before how evocative they are – our first ever sight of England was a view of them as we flew over from the French coast, and Much Better Half promptly burst into tears.

  3. Those cliffs are legendary. They figure in so much history it’s hard to know where to begin, isn’t it? I love your shoutout to Bertram Ramsay—he’s one of my heroes, even though I’m not British.

    1. Another Ramsay fan, splendid! So sad his life ended the way it did, after all he did for us. There is a wonderful statue overlooking the white cliffs…I will see if I can root the picture out to show you…

  4. On top of the white cliffs stands a radar station about which I wrote a poem, which I will now repeat on my poetry site, (johnell74.wordpress.com). It is called “The Sentinel”
    Lovely stuff, Kate.

    1. It is really interesting to see the conclusions he came to during his week, Roger. The blog has some footage of passers by and their impressions of the cliffs. Perfect for a WhiteCliff obsessive like me.

  5. This was a very moving read, Kate. Although I live a long way from these beautiful white cliffs, they are so real to me. I grew up knowing the words to the popular World War II song, “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and you’re so right that they are popularized in the best of literature and historical settings. I’ve just “followed” Baggini so I can learn more. What an excellent project. Thanks for the wonderful lead in and providing such great links. D

    1. I do hope you do, Penny, because it would mean a mug of tea and a chat would not be far behind 🙂 We could choose from the castle cafe or the White Cliffs cafe…or we could even have cream tea at the lighthouse!

    1. Thanks Barbara. Actually, while the cliffs are lovely, at their base is an area of some considerable deprivation, flanked by a port which was almost sold to the French a short while ago. The Cliffs have their feet rooted in harsh reality.

      1. Sadly not. It will just purchase the last stretch for the Trust. The area needs a lot more investment from a wider arena before it can be an effective setting for the cliffs.

  6. I do love your stories. I feel like I’ve had a bit of a travel adventure after reading your post. But that’s what writing’s about, isn’t it? Taking the reader somewhere? For today, there’s no place I’d rather be.

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