Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The view from the nearest house to France


The image above (Little Channel 3, 2008) was painted by Paul Winstanley, part of a series of views over the English Channel. The precise view is taken from the garden of a house perched on the top of the White Cliffs in a small village called St Margaret's in Kent. The garden is approximately half a dozen metres long and terminates in an abrupt and unprotected drop to the Straight of Dover three hundred and fifty feet below. 

Both the view and the garden belong to a house known as The Gun Emplacement or, more colloquially, The Nearest House to France. The structure was built in 1910 by the British Army and formed part of the Kent coastal defences during the second world war. The actor Peter Ustinov was billeted in the house at the time and bought it shortly afterwards as as a holiday retreat. For a short while towards the end of the war he would have been a near neighbour of Noel Coward, who lived in another highly exposed and prominent house on the shingle beach at nearby St Margaret's Bay.

To choose to live on the White Cliffs, or perched on the loose shingle at the edge of the channel, is to associate yourself with a very particular kind of national identity. It's amusing to speculate on the scene as various extrovert and extravagant British actors strolled the grounds of their houses on the edge of England, preparing to defend the country through whimsical lyrics and amusing voices. Whilst Ustinov manned a literal gun emplacement, Noel Coward's propaganda was a more subtle and possibly effective form of warfare. After the war, he sold his house to Ian Fleming, another even more vociferously xenophobic writer who based one of his Bond novels, Moonraker, on the White Cliffs. In the book - far removed from the even more ludicrous film - a bitter ex-German Army officer who has assumed a new identity as a British millionaire builds a rocket on the White Cliffs with which he intends to destroy England. The launch-pad for the rocket is facing inland, not out to sea.

The Gun Emplacement is now owned by another actor who's identity is revealed somewhat obliquely  on this website advertising the house as a holiday let. Unsurprisingly, it is not considered suitable for children.


  1. I wonder how open Ms Sprout would be to a visit from a group of Architecture students? Could be an interesting trip!

    Meeting or spotting a celebrity is nearly always a complete anticlimax and I think it's wonderfully apt and incredibly English that a plethora of national celebrities might semi-covertly* populate the White Cliffs like wombles in some grand gesture of patriotism, or if you are more cyncically inclined, in an attempt through symbolic association to cement their place as an English treasure; and yet the public are likely to actually spot them doing completely mundane things like walking their dogs or popping to the newsagent in St Margaret's Bay, which is why actually spotting a celebrity often completely obliterates that status, for that moment of unexpected exchange at the very least, and so it is in many ways an amusingly fruitless operation!

    *I say semi-covertly because whilst Professor Sprout was obviously attracted to the peace and tranquility of the Closest House to France as a summer home, she could not resist putting her 'clue' in capital letters on the rental lesting website!

  2. True, although I'm not sure I would ever expect too much from meeting Miriam Margoles. Interesting(ish) gossip though about her: One, she is friends with Fred Koetter who co-wrote Collage City and who used to stay in the Gun Emplacement, and, two, she also owns a house in Tuscany that she bought off Nigel Coates.

    I hadn't thought of them as buying the houses in order to become English treasures, more that they were massive show-offs! But you are right. It's transparent...