Blue Birds Over the White Cliffs of Dover:  Thoughts of an American Tourist

Many years ago, I traveled to London with my dear friend Jeannie.  We took several tours, one of which was to Stonehenge.  We excitedly hopped off the bus, ran through the entrance tunnel, out to Stonehenge.  My first thought while standing behind the barrier was that it was much smaller than I had imagined; however, I kept my own counsel.  Alas, a man standing next to us did not and blurted out, “it’s just a pile of rocks.”  From that moment on, we rated everything we saw on tours as either diamonds or a pile of rocks.

The tour to which we were most looking forward was the White Cliffs of Dover.  This tour also included Leeds Castle, which was interesting, sure, but onward, onward, to the cliffs!  As we arrived at our destination at the bottom of the cliffs, Jeannie wondered aloud what they would be, diamonds or a pile of rocks.  I said, “well, we shall soon see.”  Our tour brought us to the beach facing the coastline.  Looking back, I suppose we were taken to the easiest access point as opposed to the best view 

Photo by Tarik Haiga on Unsplash

because as we gazed upon the object of our wonderment, we said simultaneously, “a pile of rocks.” Of course, we thought that was hilarious and laughed…and laughed because the “White” Cliffs of Dover were gray!  It was many years later, after watching myriad British TV series on PBS and Amazon Prime, that I discovered the many different views of the cliffs, and they are, truly, magnificent.  I do hope to one day return to discover anew their breathtaking grandeur.

White Cliffs of Dover. Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Over the years I have often thought of this song, that bus driver and the message that he wanted to impart.  He was successful; we got the message loud and clear.  The cliffs are much more than a tourist attraction:  they are an icon that said to the world, “we will get through this.”  It still brings tears to my eyes when I realize that the Greatest Generation possessed something then that seems now to be in short supply:  Hope. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.    The words of this song say it all.  The English had no doubt that their military would safeguard their land against German invasion.  And they did, along with the allied forces.

The more I thought about the song and what it meant to war torn England, the more I wanted to discover what made this song so poignant, so I researched its background.  Ironically, I discovered that this song was written by two Americans, one of whom had never even been to England.  Walter Kent composed the melody, reminiscent of Over the Rainbow, for the lyrics of Nat Burton, which he had based on a 1940 poem by Alice Duer Miller, also an American.  The song was written in 1941 and was performed by American swing bands, including Glenn Miller, and singers, including Jimmy Dorsey.  It became a huge sensation only after the sweetheart of the British armed forces Vera Lynn sang it in 1942.   That Ms. Lynn’s version was also a big hit in the States is testament to the understanding between our nations that is achieved by “serving in the trenches” together.  We are one another’s closest allies.

Alice Duer Miller’s poem, entitled The White Cliffs, is about a wealthy, young American girl traveling in England, who meets and marries an English lad only to lose him in the Great War shortly thereafter.  The emotional impact of this poem at first made me think it was autobiographical, but it is not.  It is an exceedingly long poem chronicling the heroine’s journey through married life, subsequent life as a widow raising a son alone and, finally, wondering if he, too, would be lost to the next looming war.  It is likely the sentiments expressed in the first section that inspired Burton’s lyrics.  Her words follow:

 

I have loved England, dearly and deeply,
Since that first morning, shining and pure,
The white cliffs of Dover I saw rising steeply
Out of the sea that once made her secure.
I had no thought then of husband or lover,
I was a traveller, the guest of a week;
Yet when they pointed 'the white cliffs of Dover',
Startled I found there were tears on my cheek.
I have loved England, and still as a stranger,
Here is my home and I still am alone.
Now in her hour of trial and danger,
Only the English are really her own.

Do not despair, my English friends, the lady of the poem loved England and its people very much and chose to raise her son there after the death of her husband despite her family’s pleas for her to return to the States.  Albeit long, it is a powerful poem worth reading.

So, what, then, is the reason that the cliffs are integral to English love of country?  The cliffs have been described as being to the English what the Statue of Liberty is to Americans.  The cliffs were the first sight that those rescued at Dunkirk in the 1940 evacuation saw from the boats after they safely crossed the channel.  They have been a natural barrier against enemy invasion in military history going back to Julius Caesar, sitting as they do at the closest point in the English Channel between England and France.  Now, as then, the cliffs stand as the symbolic guard against invasion.  They are described by the National Trust as an “icon of Britain…the white chalk face a symbol of home and war time defence”.

I will never forget that bus driver and the song he played on the way back from the cliffs.  In less than three minutes he changed my vision of these magnificent creations.  They are definitely “diamonds,” and the song is a stunning statement of hope that a better tomorrow would come.   On 8 May 1945, exactly seventy-five years ago, when the allied troops in Europe declared victory over the Germans, that day finally came.

There’ll be bluebirds over 

The White Cliffs of Dover 

Tomorrow, just you wait and see.

I’ll never forget the people I met

Braving those angry skies.

I remember well as the shadows fell

The light of hope in their eyes

And though I am far away I still can hear them say

Sun’s up

For when the dawn comes up

There’ll be bluebirds over 

The White Cliffs of Dover 

Tomorrow, just you wait and see.

There’ll be love and laughter

And peace ever after,

Tomorrow when the world is free.

The shepherd will tend his sheep.

The valley will bloom again.

And Jimmy will go to sleep

In his own little room again.

There’ll be bluebirds over 

The White Cliffs of Dover 

Tomorrow, just you wait and see.

Written by Guest blogger, Diane Romano, The Anne Boleyn Experience 2019  tour participant

Published: 8 May 2020

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