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.

Things Helen Loves image of girl in desert landscape

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.

Things Helen Loves image of squat building , former lighthouse in Dungeness

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.

Things Helen Loves, image of boat and lobster pots

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.

Things Helen Loves, image of shacks and old railroad

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.

Things Helen Loves image of Old Lighthouse Dungeness

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.

Things Helen Loves, image of bleak desert landscape

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?

Things Helen Loves, picture of cottage at Dungeness

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.

Things Helen Loves, image of yellow framed window
Prospect Cottage

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.

Things Helen Loves Image of cottage with poetry on the side

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.

Things Helen Loves, alternative view of Prospect Cottage
Prospect Cottage viewed through one of the garden sculptures

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?

Things Helen Loves view of Dungeness Nuclear power plant
Dungeness Power Station viewed across the nature reserve.

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.

Things Helen Loves, image from Dungeness

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!

Helen x

22 thoughts

  1. An intriguing place to visit Helen. I’d love to climb to the top of the old lighthouse one day too!

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thank you, hopefully I’ll get back to make the climb. Maybe I should get a bit of training done beforehand, it’s a lot of steps!

  2. I’ve never visited Dungeness, but you make it sound both intriguing and appealing. It’s not on th path to anywhere much for this dyed-in-the-wool Northerner, so I wonder if I ever shall visit?

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Ah, a fellow Northerner! Dungeness was a funny one. Yes, it’s an end-of-the-line sort of place. Worth a look if you ever find yourself in the South though. And if not, many wonderful places to be enjoyed between North and South!

  3. My husband used to work in our local power station and for some obscure reason was sent to Dungeness on a long ago visit. It might even have been in the time of the old lighthouse. He made it sound very unappealing, but it was probably raining. 🙂 🙂 I remember seeing it on a documentary and it did look a bit dismal. But you obviously have a more cheerful disposition. That’s a definite asset.

  4. I’ve always thought Dungeness would be a fascinating place to visit, as it’s quite quirky, but maybe not during a heatwave! I’ve seen a couple of documentaries about DJ which were interesting.

  5. I had a similar misapprehension about deserts until John went to a conference in the Arizona desert. I imagined a hotel on an oasis amidst sand dunes as far as the eye could see. Nope! Nothing like that, as I found out when I visited myself some years later. Dungeness sounds like the sort of place I’d enjoy.

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one 😂 it’s an intriguing place to say the least. Especially tucked in amongst the greenery of Kent!

  6. This is the first I’ve heard of Dungeness and you have made it sound so intriguing. It’s a place ripe for another ‘Stranger things’ , shifting sands, strange noise and nuclear power station 😊. My imagination is going berserk! Also the number of lighthouses you say and all far from the sea , sounds fascinating!

  7. Great post. Been to Dungeness so many times and always thought it was truly weird. Some wonderful views and very peaceful but you are so right about the post-apocalyptic feel. Seems like the world has slightly given up on it doesn’t it? I always told our boys that every house had either a murderer or a body inside! That sort of place.

  8. I had no idea this place existed, especially in the UK! It looks like a really interesting place. Good know for a potential future destination.

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thanks, I had no idea either until recently.

  9. -UrgeToXplore - says:

    Desert in UK ! Oh well never thought something like this exists.

  10. there’s a desert in Croatia too, similarly not the Sahara type of desert that we all think of, more like this one:)

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Oh really? I must look that up. I’d love to visit Croatia. One day, after all of this!

  11. This place is amazing Helen! I’d love to take the kids here and go on a little scavenger hunt to see what we can find. The steam engine train sounds like a treat as well, the kids will be very excited! Beautifully captured photos too! 🙂

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thank you so much, it’s a great place for kids. Good for an adventure!

  12. Very Nostalgic and enchanting land. And one of those landscapes that can move any Photographer or cinematographer for hours. Thanks for this. Lovely images.

    Nara x

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thank you so much. And yes, enchanting is the perfect description, I’m sure if I go back I’ll capture completely different views.

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