Dungeness

I wanted to go but would I get it?  The woman in Rye got it but her son did not.

“He’s arty, like me, so I wanted to take him because I knew he’d love it.  I knew he’d get it.”  She grimaced, “But he didn’t; he hated it.  Called it God-awful forsaken.  He said it was bleak, ugly and depressing.  He couldn’t wait to leave.”  She shrugged her parental incomprehension.

But, undeterred by her little tale, Jim and I drove east from our hotel in Rye anyway, crossed into Kent and spent several hours on Dungeness: a flat, stony, peninsular jutting out into the English Channel.

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I was excited.  I’d heard, read and seen so much about strange, opinion-dividing Dungeness but needed to see it for myself.   I wanted to gush how, on arrival, the first thing one notices is the sky: sky, sea and pebbles; salt and wind.  But that would be untrue.

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The first thing one notices is the 1950’s nuclear power station.   Which I wasn’t expecting.  I thought that would be removed somehow; distant and easily ignored.  But no, it broods full-square on, dominating and central (near the pub and miniature railway station), pulling the eye and holding on tight.  Personally, I think it – alone – deserves all those damning adjectives used by the boy from Rye.  I pictured the architect printing the words “Aesthetic considerations?” at the top of their brief – then scoring them out and scribbling, “Nah.”  There is no concession to the landscape, no design beyond the functional, no thought for neighbours forced to look at the bloody thing day in, day out.  Did the architect think no-one (who mattered) would see it?  That nobody would care?

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And why paint it a sickly yellow?  A deliberate warning to stay away?  “This is the colour your skin will turn should you loiter.”  Works for me.

Dungeness Nuclear Power Station

One of the two reactors – Dungeness A – closed in 2006 and the second – Dungeness B – was due to follow suit in 2018.  But the owners, EDF, have recently announced a ten-year reprieve – despite concerns of rising sea levels and storm surges on this low-lying, coastal site.

DSM_9242

A calmly worded notice told me what to do during an ‘event’.   You needn’t bother reading it, I’ll summarise: don’t breathe, don’t bleed, run away.

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On a sunny April Sunday morning, Dungeness was busy.  We turned our backs on the power station – which is all any of us can do – to join an excitement of twitchers.  And they were jolly excited, though we couldn’t tell why.  Other than a few gulls, I saw nothing to make a birdwatcher twitch.

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Maybe it was  a twitcher-dating group, excited at shy eye-contact, gentle innuendo and the illicit rustle of Goretex; simply exuberant at not being alone in a draughty hide sipping flask tea and eating Marmite sandwiches.

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There are two lighthouses on Dungeness.

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The elegant old lighthouse closed in 1960 having served 54 years.

Dungeness Old Lighthouse

Not a terribly long time for a structure built painstakingly from 3 million bricks … but, you see, the newly built power station partly obscured its light and, at a stroke, made the lighthouse useless.

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I liked the replacement very much:

Dungeness New Lighthouse

a sleek, space-age beauty perched upon a spiralled, concrete ramp.   Was it designed by Hergé?

The_Adventures_of_Tintin_-_16_-_Destination_Moon

Image – en.wikipedia.org

His space rocket would stand seamlessly beside it, refuelling.  ‘Destination Dungeness.’

Fog Warning

But how awful to live next door as thick fog floats in off the Channel.  And which long-suffering local volunteered his face for the graphic?

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Dungeness is a place of artists and fishermen; day-trippers and out-of-town-holiday-home-owners.  We sought out the first and wandered about the garden and studio of a resident.

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I liked the chap – if not his work especially – with his friendly face and manner, the sparkling drip at the end of his nose and a warm, tight fug of last-night’s scotch.  We had a short conversation about gardening and a shared love of sea-kale.  After saying our goodbyes, and as I drifted away, he called out, “Keep your fingers in the sod,” to which I had no reply other than a lame, “Oi, you can’t call Jim that.”

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Dungeness isn’t neat and tidy, spick and span.  In fact, in places, it is downright messy – unless this is another art installation.  If so, I don’t get it.

Dungeness Fish Hut

Fishing boats still work from the beach and we naturally gravitated to sample their catch at The Dungeness Fish Hut.   Jim ordered two Fisherman’s Rolls with crispy fillets of fried sole (to the disbelief of the man standing next to him.  Ought we have had the crab?).

Dungeness Fish Hut

If you don’t like fish, best move on.

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We sat, quietly munching, appreciative, gazing out over pebbles and sky, wrapped against the cold wind.  English seaside typified, only with added sun.

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The range of beach architecture is wide and eclectic.  There are houses and shacks for every taste: the dishevelled pink;

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the smart, that’ll-do-me;

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those airlifted in from the set of ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’;

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light sucking, black-hole homes;

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the achingly cool;

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the tumbledown, “Ooh-what-an-exciting-project” type;

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the black; the white;

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the sleek, enviable;

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the homely, no-nonsense;

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the green;

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the perfectly simple.

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And the available.   Property on Dungeness doesn’t come to the market often but this three bedroom house is currently for sale, a snip at £385 000 (with great views of the power station to rear).  Fancy it?  Details here.

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So?  Did I get it?  Did I get Dungeness?

Prospect Cottage

I did, mostly.  I loved the wide watery sky, the island feel with the busy Channel to east and west, the peace, the saltiness, clear light, the cry of gulls and the desolate, harsh environment of one of the largest shingle beaches in the world.

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And I liked how it is different to anywhere else I’ve been.  It’s a bit like parts of Norfolk, or the Cumbrian coast, or Cornwall, Brighton beach as well but Dungeness is wholly unique.

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It is an odd place and I can understand the boy from Rye’s reaction.   Dungeness isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

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I liked it enough to go back.  I want to spend a weekend there to enjoy the quiet after the crowds have left; sip a glass of wine at sundown; see the dawn with marmalade on toast; watch this weird corner of England under different weather and different skies.

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I might embark on the small-gauge, very cramped carriages of the steam train even.   But I don’t want to live on Dungeness.  I’d miss trees too much for a start and green fields and hills.  And I would fear for my liver.  How soon, I wonder, before I’d forge a querulous attachment to whisky and sport, unaware, a glittering drip on the end of my nose.  I’m not saying isolated Dungeness would turn me to drink but it’d probably give me a strong nudge.

oooOOOooo

There.   A whole post about Dungeness with not a word about Derek Jarman nor Prospect Cottage (but there might be a sneaky photo of the latter in here somewhere).   We did see the famous garden, of course, but I’ll write about that another day.

(The header photo on this post is the ensign of Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority for England.  Their flag flapped beside Dungeness new lighthouse.  Trinity House is shorthand: their full name is – deep breath – The Master, Wardens and Assistants of the Guild Fraternity or Brotherhood of the most glorious and undivided Trinity and of St. Clement in the Parish of Deptford Strond).

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39 thoughts on “Dungeness

  1. I went on a misty day in March a few years back for a birthday treat. We almost missed the turning to the beach as visibility was so poor but, as if by magic, the mist lifted for a few seconds revealing the monstrous power station seemingly nearby and then closed down around it again, obscuring it from view. The weather stayed damp and closed in but it made everything very atmospheric and dramatic. I loved it and would also like to spend some time there (I’m a beachcomber at heart) – although next time a bit of sunshine wouldn’t go amiss.

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    • I rather like the thought of mist revealing the power station enough for you to know it was there but then, politely, obscuring it again. Next time, I’ll take your misty atmospheric day and you may have my sunny one. I hope if they sounded the fog-horn you had ear-mufflers? Dave

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  2. That is a wonderful read. Thanks. I’ve never been to Dungeness – and, having read this, I almost feel I’ve got enough of the place not to have to go in person. I think I will though. I’d never appreciated the way everything is tumbled together there. One reads such a lot (less, perhaps, now than one did) about Prospect Cottage and Jarman, with a sense that – nuclear power station apart – that’s all there is, surrounded by miles of shingle and sea kale. Clearly not so. Thanks again.

    Oh, and like Annette, I’d have had to ask the birders what they were up to. Though I think I prefer your explanation. Unlike Annette I sometimes find ‘serious’ (for which read ‘self-important’) twitchers less than welcoming. Anyone with a camouflaged telephoto lens tends to be given a wide berth.

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    • Very astute observation re camouflaged lenses, very wise. I’d recommend visiting, if you can. It’s certainly possible to see and experience just shingle, sea kale, sea and sky … but from selective viewpoints only. I too was surprised at how ‘tumbled together’ it all is but I would definitely go again. The fact that Dungeness isn’t truly vast hasn’t put me off visiting again either. D

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  3. I like your interpretation of the excitement’s excitement. We’ll hope it was true, and that the fish hut did a steady business in plaice for two later in the day. (I grew up in a land-locked state 1,000 miles from the closest ocean and didn’t know there were that many kinds of edible fish.) Fun post, Dave. x

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  4. Great post. It has brought back a vague memory of visiting Dungeness as a child on a school holiday to Hastings. I remember thinking it was the strangest place I had ever seen (at the time). This was back in the early eighties when nuclear war was the big story and I remember thinking that was how the world might look after a nuclear holocaust! There is something about being able to see for miles whilst somewhere flat that really freaks me out. On top of a mountain or a big hill it makes sense but somewhere flat it all seems wrong. However now I live in East Anglia, I’m having to get used to it.

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    • Hi Rej, I’ve just finished walking the South Downs Way and at the finale – on the cliffs to the west of Eastbourne – we could see the power station of Dungeness, floating on the horizon. I must have seen it before from near my home but didn’t know it. I can see what you mean about a holocaust landscape but one day, the power station will be gone – just 10 years later than I would’ve hoped. D

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  5. been on the train. I remember looking UP to the sheep.
    And two semis, Sunnyside and Sunnyside Up.

    Wish I’d realised how close were to Dungeness.
    Not going to get another chance.

    Looking forward to Part Two …

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  6. I guess I don’t get it. The whole place looks barren and ugly to me. The usual photos of Prospect Cottage are carefully composed and cropped and, thus, leave to the imagination a more romantic sort of desolation…But, maybe you have to be there to get it. And also, I rather wish they’d painted the power station in blocky primary colors–that would be fun.

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    • I like that you and others don’t get it, Emily – otherwise Dungeness wouldn’t be as odd as it undoubtedly is. And I agree about the block colours. I had the same thought – it would look far better, I think. D

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  7. I’m going to say it. I want to see Derek Jarmans home and garden too! Looking forward to your blog about it. As I read this piece and saw the photos of the power station it reminded me of the Kennedy Space station I visited years ago during the 90s. Then loe and behold you liken the lighthouse to a rocket. Great minds… great minds… ; )
    Hope you both had a great break. C

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    • I’m off walking for a week tomorrow, Caro, so I’m afraid the Derek Jarman post will be awhile in the coming. We had a smashing break thanks, good hotel (cheap voucher deal!) and Rye is beautiful with good pubs and a super new cinema. Go, Miss Trug go. Tons to see within an hour’s drive and England at its romantic best. D

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    • Oh no! But then I’m pleased to hear from somebody who didn’t get it, really – otherwise my post reads as nonsense (like so many of my other posts). I can understand why you didn’t get it – I thoroughly expected not to myself. D

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  8. Now please pay attention in class. A blog post starts at the beginning and ends at the end. A little row of circles doesn’t denote the end. The end is that little line on the left just above “Share this.” But thanks for the non-desolate tour of the desolation. A nice touch to show the twitchers in monochrome; maybe they’ve been there since the days before colour and are frozen in time waiting for the elusive albatross. I hope when someone buys that house they’ll be treated to early demonstrations of the nuclear siren and foghorn so they know the difference at 3am when they’re woken by a noise! Come to think of it, does the train have a whistle?

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    • Au contraire (get me, coming over all foreign!) dear John. The blog post (on my blog) ends where I damn well sayit does. This isn’t some kind of commie collective, y’know. A little row of circles denotes the end (unless it doesn’t). Make a note please. Have you been to Dungeness? Do go if you get the chance. And let me know whether the train whistles – my memory isn’t what it was. D

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  9. I have never felt a desire to go to dungerness apart from maybe to visit Derek Jarmans garden and even thst I’m not too bothered by but I found your post fascinating. I love big open skies and your photos remind me of the beaches up in Northumberland with their big skies. Maybe I will go one day

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    • I can understand your lack of desire to visit, Helen, and ours too probably explains why we hadn’t been – despite living only a couple of hours away. Prospect Cottage itself isn’t, I think, enough reason to visit – you’ll ‘do’ that in just a few minutes – but Dungeness is remarkable and quite special. I don’t know you very well, but I reckon you would get a real kick out of it. Rye is an excellent place to stay (the recent adaptation of ‘Mapp and Lucia’ was filmed there) and Dungeness, Winchelsea, Battle and Hastings are all close by. If you get the chance do go. I can promise you’ll never see anywhere quite like it. Dave

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  10. Thanks for that Dave,very timely. My daughter and I are going next month AND we’ve booked a tour in the sickly yellow power station!! Hope we get the same weather you had and that fish stall is open!

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    • Oh dear and now you’ve made me feel bad. I hope your tour is a triumph of interest and wonder. Really. I bet, actually, it is jolly interesting but a lifetime aversion to nuclear power tends to colour my viewpoint – obviously (from this post). The fish shack serves superb food (too much choice!) and the pub ain’t bad either. Hop on the train too if you have time – I now wish we had. Dave

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  11. A fabulous post Dave. Enjoyed it all. But as I was reading it I was beginning to get very excited about you not having mentioned Prospect Cottage. “Is he really that brave, really that cool?” And then you blew it. But you put me firmly in my place the last time I complained, so I expect to be ignored this time. A great post despite bottling out.

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    • Thanks Charles, glad you liked it. After your last comment I did wonder whether I’d hear from you again – and to be fair, I received as good as I gave. And really? Ignore you, Charles? Don’t be ridiculous. How can a blue Panama clad celebrity like you be ignored? I had to (was required even) to mention Prospect Cottage (if only as a postscript – I might add as a pointed but salient fact) to ease the frantic worry of you, dear reader. Bottling out? Or laying your particular worries to rest. You decide. Dave

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  12. Very amusing, yet poignant post. I was smiling all the way through and loved some of your descriptions.
    I couldn’t have left those twitchers without finding out what they were all looking at though. I find if you have a camera round your neck (with as big a lens as possible of course) they are a really nice group of people and will willingly share any interesting information.

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  13. I visited years ago, just for a couple of hours and was amazed at the amount of wildlife, bees, butterflies, birds. The undergardener was off chasing the little train, we both had a marvellous time!

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    • Hi Pauline, indeed – I was amazed by the diversity of the wildlife too and the RSPB reserve, which we stopped at on our way back to Rye, was brilliant. This post grew in the telling though and plants, wildlife and indeed Prospect Cottage all got sidelined. But I do now wish we’d got on the train. Next time. D

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