In November 2012, the National Trust came into ownership of a stretch of the White Cliffs of Dover in front of the beautiful South Foreland Lighthouse. Rosie Perry, Neptune Coastline Campaign Intern, visits the site to see what’s happening one year on.
Although the National Trust has played a part in protecting parts of the White Cliffs for many years, this stretch includes what is arguably the most iconic part and where the cliffs are at their highest. As a historical first and last view for many travellers to the United Kingdom, these cliffs have come to represent our country. According to Jon Barker, National Trust Assistant Visitor Experience Manager at Fan Bay, many visitors had previously been visiting the site expecting it to be accessible to all. However they found to their disappointment that the land was privately owned. Therefore it is great news that now the public can enjoy one of the country’s most famous strips of coastline.
Over the past year, eighteen thousand people have walked across this stretch of coast, enjoying the views out to Calais, and watching the busy ferry port. Meanwhile however, an exciting project has got underway. With this acquisition, came an added historical bonus. Hidden underground lies Fan Bay Shelter, a surviving structure from the Second World War. Thanks to the archaeological passion of Jon Barker, these tunnels will hopefully open to the public by 2015, Neptune’s 50th anniversary.
Earlier this month, I got the opportunity to visit Fan Bay Shelter. As it stands in November 2013, I had to work for the experience, clambering down over mud and rock to reach the original stairway, one of three previous entrances unblocked. As we clambered down into the tunnels day light faded away until the only light was that of our head torches. The first mistake I made was in expecting it to be the size of Anderson war shelters that I have been in. The name is slightly deceiving and the site is more of a complex, built to accommodate up to 200 artillery men and even a small hospital.
The walls were lined with graffiti ranging from tags as recently as a few months ago, right back to names scratched into the chalk at bunk height from during the war. Parts of the congregated iron sheets and arches lining the tunnel have been ripped out by scrap men, but obviously seen as too much hard work to transport, and then abandoned on the floor. This will actually be very useful for the team as although they will leave the tunnel as it is now apart from very light cleaning, the parts ripped out mean that they can authentically replace any parts that become damaged in the future. Further into the tunnel, Jon pointed out to me a small face carved into the chalk. We could just make out a small moustache. Could it be Hitler? Tucked under the joint of piece of the metal lining the wall, a needle and thread were also pointed out to me, tucked there for convenient keeping by someone who was expecting to come back. It was the small details like this, discovered through the light of a head torch which made the experience so engaging.
It is great that the National Trust acquisition of such a famous piece of coastline has also led to the rediscovery for the public of such an interesting piece of its past. The opportunity to experience history in a raw state and learn about the role of our coast in shaping the story of the nation is one that I really enjoyed. The project is a really exciting one as it aims to create an experience through which the public will be able to engage with a historical site in a way which is not tidied or sanitised but ‘as it was’ and truly authentic. I cannot wait to visit again when it opens for good.