Why there'll be a few words over the White Cliffs of Dover...

National Trust appoints writer to explain their enduring pull on British identity

For centuries the White Cliffs of Dover have lifted the hearts of returning heroes to Britain and dampened the enthusiasm of invading foes.

Now the National Trust, which owns a five-mile stretch of the iconic Kent coastline, has appointed a writer-in-residence to get to the bottom of why the chalk cliffs have such a pull on our national identity.

The philosopher Julian Baggini, pictured, will spend a week from today strolling the 110-metre cliff tops, talking to people who live, work and visit the area, to try to understand – and explain – their enduring symbolism.

"People say they are iconic and symbolic and mean a lot to us, but if you try to explain how or why that is, it needs a lot of thought," he said.

Mr Baggini added that the cliffs are often thought of as a "fortress" but also represent home coming.

For Julius Caesar, for example, they were a fearful obstacle to his invasion of Britain. But for troops returning from the First and Second World Wars, they represented a comforting return to normality, famously expressed in Vera Lynn's morale-boosting 1942 hit, "(There'll be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover".

But although they have inspired poems and songs, Mr Baggini – who will be based at the South Foreland lighthouse – will be producing something more like a long essay.

"It won't be a poetic eulogy. If that's what they're expecting they've got the wrong guy," he said. "There's plenty of literary material about the cliffs. Many important episodes in our national story have taken place on this stretch of coast, so I want to look at how its local history has shaped our national history.

"I also want to talk to people about how some contemporary debates, such as fishing and immigration, are being played out here. It'll be more of a long essay, although I'll be blogging my musings along the way."

His appointment is part of the National Trust's campaign to raise £1.2m to buy a mile-long part of the coast it doesn't own. The trust also wants to raise awareness that it doesn't just look after historical buildings, but also swathes of Britain's protected landscape, including 720 miles of coast line.

Mr Baggini's blog begins today and runs until next Monday. It can be found at whitecliffsofdoverwriter.wordpress.com

Music and literature: An iconic coastline

'(There'll be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover' – Vera Lynn

"Forces' Sweetheart" Dame Vera Lynn's 1942 recording lifted morale during the Second World War.

'Dover Beach' – Matthew Arnold

"The cliffs of England stand glimmering and vast" wrote Arnold in his 1867 poem.

'King Lear' – William Shakespeare

"There is a cliff, whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep: Bring me but to the very brim of it," says blind Gloucester in King Lear, wanting to throw himself from the cliff tops.

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