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bluebirds and snowstorms

Leg 2 White Cliffs

Sometimes there is little to separate nostalgia and cultural heritage except intent.

There’ll be bluebirds over

The white cliffs of Dover

Someday, just you wait and see.

Why was this such a desirable thing to happen? After all there are no bluebirds in Britain, these warblers are native to America and would never be seen anywhere near Dover. The bluebirds of North and Central America featured in many American popular songs from the 1920s onwards, signifying happiness and well-being. The American lyricist Nat Burton clearly had little knowledge of British ornithology but that didn’t stop him using the hackneyed cliché out of context.

The song, popularised by Vera Lynn the ‘forces sweetheart’, became emblematic of the nostalgia for ‘blighty’ felt by overseas servicemen and women. Supposedly the last sight of England and the first returning glimpse would be the white cliffs of Dover. But of course, in 1941 when the song was written and first recorded, this was not the case as the French ports opposite Dover were very much in the hands of the enemy. All of this does not stop the song and Dame Vera (until her death in 2020) being wheeled out every time someone wants to resurrect the ‘blitz’ spirit and evoke nostalgia for a supposedly lost national pride and resilience.

William Turner famously claimed to have had himself tied to the mast of a paddle steamer while it was out in a winter storm and ordered the captain to sail into the storm for four hours. This was to fully understand the tempestuous reality of nature. The outcome was the famous painting now in the Tate. Nothing is said of the poor crew who had to risk their lives so he could experience this. Remember it was an early paddle driven steam ship, not a vessel best suited to weather winter storms. Four hours out in a snowstorm at night would probably kill off most people through exposure. On top of all that it was sailing out of Margate which is a poorly protected harbour at the best of times.

So, the tale might have expanded a little in the re-telling and is now emblematic of the Romantics desire to experience and represent nature accurately. To some eyes the painting has more to do with Turner’s fascination with modern technology and it’s capacity to overcome and tame nature than being an expression of nature’s dominance.

There are of course no Turners in the Turner Contemporary in Margate. Instead, it houses fine exhibitions and a wide range of contemporary art. So why the ‘Turner Contemporary’. Well, he did spend a lot of time painting at the boarding house run by his mistress, Mrs. Booth, and the town was a bit short of other cultural references to fall back on when they pitched for their slice of the lottery funded cultural pie.

The abandoned competition winning scheme for the TC by the Norwegian architects Snohette was a cross between a beach pebble and submarine conning tower while the form of the final building owes much to the functional fisherman’s beach buildings that still survive in some Kent towns. Both pay respect to the importance of the seascape to Turner, the former was literally in the sea outside the breakwater and the final building offers panoramic picture frame views over the Thames estuary. The use of cultural heritage just manages to avoid coming across as superficial or overly literal.

By contrast the sculpture named after Mrs. Booth on the Margate breakwater directly refences low value seaside trinkets, in this case the seashell dolls sold in souvenir shops. It expands the source both metaphorically and literally. What de Kooning did for the balloon dog Carrington does for the seaside souvenir, in what some would say was an ironic statement and others might see as rather cynical nostalgia.

And so, it is with Thames barges. Two brand new Thames barges were launched five years ago, 100 years after their heyday: Blue Mermaid and Snark. Both are immediately identifiable as being to type. The former is a literal reconstruction of an original sailing vessel to the point of having no auxiliary engine or power assistance. The latter is a modern reinterpretation using the best of the original concept alongside current technology to improve the safety and efficiency.

As the builder of Snark I am perhaps too close to take a position on where the two sit on the cultural heritage/nostalgia spectrum. What I do know is we don’t need a tug to get us in and out of harbour, making our voyages much easier to plan and cheaper to operate.

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