Geography has never been my strong point. I’m not great at plotting routes or reading maps and my ability to identify geographical features is limited to say the least. So if you’d asked me a week or so ago to define a desert I would have said something along the lines of ‘massive, scorching, dry, foreign. Sahara and similar’. I would not have thought you’d find a desert here in the UK.
But apparently, you can. Step forward, Dungeness. Perched on the edge of the Kent coastline jutting out into the English Channel, Dungeness is a vast sweep of flat sands and shingle just a short drive from bustling bucket-and-spade resorts of the Kent Riviera. And yet, it feels like a different world.
The atmosphere is other worldly. A bit Wild West, a bit post apocalyptic. The latter enhanced by Dungeness nuclear power station standing over things and the weathered boats that seem to be nowhere near the sea. The sea is there, of course. You can hear it but the banks and drops of shingle mean you don’t easily see it.
To add to the atmosphere, the flat land with its stone and shingle dressing carries sound in the strangest way. In some places you can clearly hear the sea with no sight of it, in others you’ll hear snatches of conversation even though there isn’t anyone close by. The local heritage steam train carries visitors into Dungeness station and the sounds of the service are echoed and distorted long before the train actually arrives at the platform.
If the sound effects are strange, the light house situation is even stranger. There are a few still standing, all of which seem curiously far from the sea. Dungeness has played host to no less than eight light houses over the years and with good reason. The flat sands and shingle peninsula has been a hazard for centuries for ships wanting to navigate surrounding seas. It isn’t, however, as simple as throwing up a lighthouse. A constant build up of shingle over time means each lighthouse ends up increasingly distant from the sea.
It is, in different times, possible to go inside what is now known as the Old Lighthouse. I think you might be able to guess the next line. Yes, it was Covid-closed. The design of the place makes social distancing impossible. A shame, the views from the top would be more than worth the climb. Hopefully we’ll make it back at some point.
One of the light house’s more recent claims-to-fame is that the Ben Fogle has been there. He’s been a bit of a crush of mine for years. Wonder if he’s also planning a return visit?
Shifting sands, strange sounds and a nuclear power station as a neighbour. Dungeness must be an intriguing place to live, hey? Live here people do, and have done for some years. The village is a scattered collection of cottages, cabins and converted railway carriages. The railway carriages were left on the sands in the 1920’s when the line fell out of use. Most have been lovingly converted and I suspect are now worth a pretty penny.
The backbone of the original Dungeness community were local fishing families, but over time the area attracted a creative crowd. Most famous of all is Prospect Cottage, former home of late artist and director, Derek Jarman. Painted black with distinctive yellow window frames, the cottage displays lines of a poetry on its side in black lettering.
Around the exterior, a garden has been carved out of the rough earth using hardy planting, driftwood and scrap metal. It sounds utilitarian and a bit bleak, but the result is actually a homely and cosy looking place.
It’s not just people who call this place home. The whole place is a designated site of Special Scientific Interest and home to the RSPB Dungeness Nature Reserve. There’s more plant life and wild life here that you might expect, especially given that it’s supposed to be a desert. I’m still a bit uncertain on that one, but experts said it on the internet so it must be true, right?
I’m not an expert, but I did spot some beautiful dragon flies, butterflies and wild flowers.
Dungeness. An English desert in the ‘Garden of England’. A nature reserve in a barren landscape. Boats on dry land and light houses that play catch up with the sea. A ramshackle village, two pubs and a sea food shack served by a heritage railway tucked in at the feet of a nuclear power station. Strange bedfellows in a strange place. But strange seems perfectly normal in this quirky little corner of the world.
Some practical info that will help if you are planning a visit to Dungeness :
- If arriving by car, head for Dungeness Station. Use post code TN29 9NA.
- The Station has free parking, toilets & baby change facilities
- There are two pubs, a cafe at the station and a sea food shack if you want to stop off for refreshments but I’d recommend at least taking your own water.
- Wear supportive footwear, walking on shifting shingle is hard. Doing it in flip flops results in very sore legs the next day.
- No swimming here. A sharply shelving shore, strong currents and sea fishing activity make it unsafe. Head for neighbouring Great Stone or Dymchurch for safer bathing.
- The hottest day of a heatwave is not the ideal day to visit. Still a great experience, just flippin’ uncomfortable!