Most visitors to the White Cliffs walk the land to the east of Dover mostly owned (and if the current appeal is successful, soon entirely owned) by the National Trust. Here, nothing but warm associations and delight at the beauty is recorded in the visitor’s book at South Foreland lighthouse I put in for my residency shows.
But there is another side to the White Cliffs – literally. The Western Heights sit on top of the chalk cliffs to Dover’s west and although passed in the final stretch of the North Downs way by walkers, it is not so visited. If you do go you’ll find a remarkably extensive network of fortifications, comprising the citadel and the Drop Redoubt. Unlike the Castle, which is designed to be seen, these were dug in to make them less visible to the more cannons of Napoleon’s forces, which they were originally built to repel, and latter the big guns of Nazi Germany, when they were called into active use again. The whole thing is divided and surrounded by a series very deep dry ditch ditches.
There is also a unique 140ft deep triple spiral staircase, the Grands Shaft. It has been closed to the public for years, although my mother remembers when she, like other kids, used to climb up them free from the constraints of health and safety.
When I was a kid, the citadel was home to a borstal, as prisons for young offenders were formally known until 1982, and informally for several years more. We never went up there but it stirred fear in the heart every time it was pointed out as where you’d end up if you went of the rails. Now it is Dover Immigration Removal Centre, run by Mer Majesty’s Prison Service, and it is a prison in all but name.
I was taken to walk around it (literally around, not inside) Rod Edmond, a Professor of English retired to Deal who has started doing some advocacy work for asylum seekers. Reminiscent of a prisoner of war camp, it’s a forbidding monument to one of the less glorious and difficult aspects of the area’s recent history. Gill Casebourne, a veteran local campaigner for the rights of refugees, told me that for many seeking asylum who spent time in Calais before trying to get to Britain, the sight of the White Cliffs represented sanctuary. That symbol would have been turned on its head if they found themselves locked up on the top of them, awaiting removal.
She also answered the question many people have about refugees who make their way to Britain via Dover. Why here? Why not stay in France, Germany or whatever European country they had travelled through? The reason is not that they have any cause to believe that they will be showered with money and given prime housing, as many of the worst kind of anti-immigration campaigners have claimed. It’s simply that Britain still has a reputation for fairness, decency and human rights. This again is something the sight of the cliffs would represent to people looking to flee here.
But over recent decades the country has become much less hospitable to immigrants. Rarely does this amount to bigoted hatred, and there is fair measure of compassion out there. In a cafe in Dover town centre I overheard one woman talking about “economic migrants”, saying that even if people are not fleeing persecution, the fact that they are prepared to risk dangerous sea crossings in small boats and put up with many other varieties of hell means they have to be desperate.
Still, the default has shifted so that instead of seeing “refugees” whom we assume need help, we see “asylum seekers” who are assumed to be “bogus” until proven otherwise. Suspicion and fear have become widespread. One person told me that many locals felt intimidated by immigrants on the streets, which I thought a bit odd, given that there is a sizeable proportion of the local community that would surely be even more intimidating to the immigrants.
Of course there are problems, there has to be a system, and not all applications are legitimate. But we ought to think about what we want our country, and so also the cliffs which represent them, to stand for. I would be delighted if people would look over the channel from France, see the Dover chalk and think of liberty, hospitality and freedom. It would be deeply sad if they instead started to see them as a citadel wall.