An information panel outside the White Cliffs Visitor Centre describes the landmark as “A symbol of steadfastness, safety and home”. I think that’s a pretty good encapsulation of how they are normally viewed. But within this is an apparent paradox: they are seen as both a comforting symbol of home and a fierce symbol of defiance and defence. They wrap one arm around us in a warm embrace and raise the other with an intimidating fist.
A similar tension also surfaced in another guise during my visit to Dover Castle. Our guide was the former custodian of the Castle and an old family friend, Phil Wyborn-Brown. I think most of us would think of the castle first and foremost as a military building. But Phil said “We are in fact the bed and breakfast hotel,” using an affectionate familial “we”. True, it did become a fortress “and certainly most of our history has been military. But it was built for Henry II as an overnight stop for important guests going to the tomb of Tomas Becket.”
Beckett was martyred in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 and it didn’t take long for pious Catholics to undertake pilgrimages to the site of his murder. One such pilgrim was the French King. As Phil tells it, one day he arrived on the beach in Dover. Henry, who was in Faversham or Chilham, “comes haring down to Dover to meet this very important guest and thinks ‘I’ve got nowhere to keep him. I’ve got nowhere to put a king.’ So he actually has to put him into St Martin’s Priory.” So although the castle was indeed planned as fort, “it’s converted basically to a state of the art luxury bed and breakfast.”
The castle therefore stands, like the cliffs, both a symbol of defiance and resistance, but also one of hospitality and welcome.
One thing I like about this story is that it is a welcome antidote to the excessive stress on the role of the coast as a barrier rather than as a port of entry. Phil also had a fresh take on this. “They’re always portrayed as this great bastion of strength and fortitude,” he said of the cliffs, “and the damn things are full of holes and held up by concrete and steel reinforcing. They’re so full of tunnels and chambers and underground stuff from before the Victorians right up to the current day. It’s like being defended by a white honeycomb.” To him, they are not fearsome at all but “welcoming”, “friendly” and “familiar”.
But perhaps this isn’t such a tension between the embrace and the defiance after all. Feeling comfortable requires a sense of security. You can only be relaxed about opening your home to strangers if you feel sure it will not be overrun by intruders. Hospitality requires confidence that it will not be taken advantage of.
That’s why I think we do need to see the cliffs as both welcoming and protecting. Without a sense of openness, the symbol of defiance can degenerate into an insularity rooted in fear and insecurity. In that state, we end up closing our doors to friends and the needy as well as to those who want to use us for their own ends. The cliffs are indeed “A symbol of steadfastness, safety and home”, but I know of no truly happy home which is not also a hospitable one.