The last of England: As Shakespeare's 429th birthday nears, the Channel tunnellers are burrowing under one of his monuments on the White Cliffs of Dover, symbolic fortress of nationhood

IT MIGHT be any chalk down in southern England. Trails lead up from a council estate, past allotments and a recreation ground. On the slopes above, young men with tattooed arms walk their dogs. The grass is like an old rug, woven with fading wild flowers, cabbage whites and meadow browns. Then the next step you take is empty air.

Few cliff-tops drop away so dramatically as this corner of coast where the North Downs are truncated by the Channel. Wave erosion has caught the escarpment on an upswing: the sudden panorama is enough to make the heart miss a beat. Sea-level is only about 350 feet below, but the overhang is unfathomable. Clouds could be a few feet away, or a few miles. Even the chalk underfoot seems to be moving.

On Shakespeare Cliff, just west of Dover, vertigo has a good precedent. In October 1604, at the time Shakespeare was probably writing King Lear, his company, the King's Men, visited Dover. In the tragedy, the Earl of Gloucester, blinded for his loyalty to Lear, meets an itinerant beggar, 'Poor Tom', and asks him 'Know'st thou the way to Dover?'

There is a cliff, whose high and bending head

Looks fearfully in the confined deep;

Bring me but to the very brim of it,

. . . from that place

I shall no leading need.

Poor Tom, Gloucester's estranged son Edgar in disguise, leads his father part-way up the 'horrible steep', and convinces him that he stands on the brink ('The fishermen that walk upon the beach / Appear like mice'). Renouncing the world, and begging forgiveness from his son, the blind man throws himself forward to certain death. But Edgar has deceived him: Gloucester falls only on the grass. Returning in the guise of a local peasant, Edgar persuades his father that he has plummeted the height of 10 masts ('Thy life's a miracle'). The mental ordeal purges the old man of his despair. His imaginary fall restores us to solid ground.

Everything in Shakespeare's description suggests that Aycliffe, renamed after the dramatist 200 years ago, is the place he had in mind. One might expect it would be a literary locus classicus, like the Brontes' Haworth or Wordsworth's Lakes. But you are unlikely to meet a cultural tourist retracing Gloucester's steps: the cliff bears no plaques to its pedigree other than its name and a King Lear pub in the estate behind. Every possible association in Stratford-upon-Avon may have been themed by now, but the Shakespeare industry has left this monument to the dramatist's poetic powers virtually untouched.

The site has not been forgotten by history, though. One of the closest mainland points to France, the cliff-tops are studded with relics of our ambivalence towards the rest of Europe. A few hundred yards away are the remains of a gun-emplacement. A little further on, a vast concrete acoustic ear, a means of detecting incoming planes before radar was invented, is turned towards the sea. Behind, a Battle of Britain monument is planned.

The movement of the land separated these chalk downs from France 7,000 years ago. Now, powerful forces are at work again, reversing the process. It was under Shakespeare Cliff, in 1880, that 2,000m of the first Channel tunnel were dug. Two years later the excavations were stopped for fear of invasion, but coal had been discovered in the process and 'Shakespeare colliery' became the first pit in the Kent coalfield. A century later, in 1974, tunnelling to France began again, only to be halted by the oil crisis. That tunnel, which connects the upper cliff with the shoreline, is now used by Transmanche Link, the consortium responsible for building Eurotunnel.

A heap of office blocks, cars and fencing now surrounds the old tunnel entrance, the operational headquarters for TML. At the foot of the cliff, diggers and bulldozers, scuttling around like giant steel crustaceans, have filled an artificial lagoon with almost 5 million cubic metres of spoil from the excavations undersea. A mile of new coastline has been created, bringing England 250m closer to France. Half the chalk slopes have been scooped away.

On this, the most precipitous of the White Cliffs of Dover, it is easy to feel a kind of cultural vertigo. Here is a headland that protrudes far into national dream and legend. Here is a view over the fractured myth of Englishness.

Bluff and obdurate, the white cliffs are the face Britain presents to the world; more specifically, they are the face England turns towards the rest of Europe. They look better from a distance. Walter Kent, the lyricist of their most celebrated song, who improbably put 'blue birds over / The white cliffs of Dover', was an American who had not been within 3,000 miles of the place. But reality never bothered a good myth. The cliffs loom larger, whiter and sturdier in the imagination than they do in fact. 'The eyes of homecomers thank these historical cliffs,' wrote Auden in his poem 'Dover 1937'. It is not only the homesick, but the seasick, who are grateful when they come into view. From the Channel, they represent stability, a fixed point in a shifting world.

Their whiteness is essential. It recurs constantly in depictions of the English landscape, the plain ground on which the countryside's 'greenness' can be spread. Charles Kingsley compared the cliffs with the 'soft limbs of Mother Hertha' (a Germanic earth goddess), and during the Celtic revival this whiteness is often associated with native druidic purity: a crude racial metaphor at work, perhaps. Other commentators have been disappointed. Sheltering in Dover Harbour in 1982 (just after the sinking of the Belgrano), Jonathan Raban found the cliffs 'maculated with grime, drained of colour, under a ragged fringe of green'. Their whiteness can stand for sickliness, a pallid constitution, an atrophied state.

Above all, the cliffs form natural defences. Julius Caesar discovered as much when he first planned invasion in 55BC and observed: 'This is no place for disembarking.' By Elizabethan times it was already commonplace to describe the cliffs as England's 'bulwarks' and the Channel as its 'moat', as in John of Gaunt's famous speech from Richard II:

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house . . .

Not that Nature went entirely unassisted: there is also the military complex of Dover Castle. Later, when cannons rendered the walls vulnerable, a Grand Redoubt was constructed on the Western Heights.

Our fortress mentality has had its critics. William Cobbett mocked the Grand Redoubt in his Rural Rides: 'What reason had you to suppose that the French would ever come to this hill to attack it, while the rest of the country was so much more easy to assail?' Caesar caught on quickly, too, and took his invasion forces to land on the shingle beach at Walmer, a few miles up the coast.

Still, the White Cliffs stand as an emblem of British resistance. Local historians remind us how Dover has always been a 'front-line' town, suffering the onslaught of Dutch merchantmen, Papist armadas, Jacobin revolutionaries and Boche zeppelins. In the Second World War the cliffs reached their most extreme emotional pitch, and again distance flattered the effect. In 1940 an Anglophile American, Alice Duer Miller, wrote a long sentimental poem called 'The White Cliffs' as part of a concerted campaign to get America into the war. It ran to 11 editions, formed the basis of a film and encouraged other images: Churchill standing on the cliffs looking over 'Hellfire Corner', a Lancaster limping home, a cartoon showing Hitler furiously hurling his planes against the implacable white walls. Ironically, the cliffs were made into a rallying cry by Vera Lynn just at the moment when air power rendered them militarily redundant: Blitzkrieg put most English cities in the front line.

But even geology conspires with the myth. Under a powerful microscope, the white chalk is comprised of the skeletons of millions of tiny coccoliths, sea creatures laid down on the seabed some 60 million years ago. It is tempting to see the cliffs as a kind of ancestral graveyard, white with the bones of the heroic dead, a shrine to national sacrifice.

If this myth has a rival of equal symbolic weight, a tunnel to France is the obvious candidate. The fixed link was first posited by a French farmer in 1751 and for 200 years the French have been suspiciously keen, the English paranoiacally wary. From this side, the link has been perceived as a conduit for rabies and revolution, for acts of foreign subterfuge, almost rape. John of Gaunt's 'moat' is broken; his 'fortress' breached.

It is easy to overplay the symbolism, though. After all, the Channel Tunnel is merely a long- overdue recognition of 50 years of European economic and political integration. But Eurotunnel itself does little to dampen the wider resonances. Company publicity talks in mythic terms of 'joining Britain to the heart of Europe', of overcoming 'the great divide'.

This might not be far from the truth. When the first passenger service through the twin- bore tunnel begins, trains will dip underground at Santerre and emerge north of Folkestone half an hour later. Travellers will no longer hang on the horizon for the sight of white chalk. If we are witnessing the climax of a struggle between two titanic myths, it seems only poetic justice that Eurotunnel should undermine Shakespeare Cliff.

On a clear breezy day, the misty symbolism of nationhood is in any case quickly challenged. Look across, and there are white cliffs on the French coast, too. Nevertheless, coastal chalk cliffs are surprisingly rare: most are in southern England; there are none in Scotland or Wales, and only a few in France, Denmark and Germany. And the distinctive geology of the English cliffs - 98 per cent calcium carbonate - also gives rise to another peculiarly English landscape: ancient chalk grassland. Formed when the downs were deforested by slash and burn, then grazed by sheep or cattle, the thin chalky soil does not allow any single type of vegetation to predominate. On average, 30 species of flora pack every square metre of chalk - spider orchids, wild beet, wild marjoram.

Squeezed between the fingers of urban Dover and an abrasive sea, a thin strip of ancient grassland persists on Shakespeare Cliff. The jackdaws and the rock samphire are still here, just as Edgar describes them in King Lear. The very language of Shakespeare seems to be rooted in such a landscape: not the outcrops of generalised patriotic bombast, but the mix of wildness and cultivation, roughness and delicacy. This is true, above all, of the language of King Lear: the open heath in the storm, the 'poor pelting farms', the flowers with which the mad king garlands his head.

It is a habitat under constant threat. About 80 per cent of ancient chalk grassland has disappeared since the Second World War. And over the past year a dramatic change has taken place on Shakespeare Cliff itself. In the once quiet valley, a dozen houses and a school have been demolished; half the grassland has been cut away to leave a great white gash, smeared by rusty bulldozer tracks, swarming with men in white hats and fluorescent vests. A modern- day Gloucester would be better off throwing himself under a passing JCB.

The greatest threat has little to do with the fixed link: Eurotunnel is keen to win (or buy) public goodwill; the offices here will soon be dismantled, and the site restocked with native plants. Our own Ministry of Transport, however, has no such qualms: through compulsory purchase orders, it has allowed an extension of the M20 to Dover Harbour to be bulldozed across cliff-top sites of special scientific interest, through the centre of Dover, severing the town from its sea promenade - all by way of compensating the harbour authority and the ferry companies for any loss of trade when Eurotunnel opens. Before long, Shakespeare Cliff will be another noisy motorway verge.

Yet we cling to the wreckage. Last year Dover Council opened a 'White Cliffs Experience', an animatronic, multi-media attraction about the 'Heritage Coast'. The so-called 'historium' celebrates scenes from the Roman invasion to the Second World War. The ferries get a big plug, but there's no mention of Gloucester's imaginary fall. Nor is the current destruction of the cliff-tops touched on. Focus on our national heritage seems to consist of elevating images while burying the facts.

Meanwhile, if you want the 'Gloucester Experience' there is still a little time left to climb the 'real' Shakespeare Cliff. Looking over the brim, you may recall how a blind man found his feet by a leap of faith. Or perhaps you might remember the story of Lear, a tyrannical old English king, who awoke from his madness only when his daughter arrived here with liberating forces from France. Or you might just listen to the sea quietly milling the shingle, before the cars drown it out forever.

(Photograph omitted)

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