Dungeness: the last frontier
I don’t tend to blog about places my wife and I visit. We have been to many wonderful places in the UK, from Uig to Zennor, but nowhere have we been that has left us with such an impression, one that was not just immediate, but also long-lasting. For us, Dungeness was more a “why” than a “wow”.
Dungeness is the southernmost point in Kent. Like many people, we arrived on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway — a wonderful legacy of 1920s eccentric ambition. Squeezed inside a diminutive carriage pulled along by a miniature diesel engine — in defiance of 21st-century health and safety, since our carriage had no doors — we whistled past numerous back gardens and mobile homes until the vista opened up to reveal the vast expanse of Dungeness, with the nuclear power stations creeping over the horizon.
Once our train pulled into Dungeness station (beside which a cafe aptly called End of the Line is located, by the way), we disembarked and headed straight for the sea. Dungeness is essentially a giant shingle beach. In fact, it is the biggest in Europe. As we made our way towards the sea, we walked past an artist’s open studio and a shop/gallery; shortly after, we came across a derelict shack that was about to be demolished to make way for a holiday home, according to a stuck-on planning permission notice. Across the road stood a pub called the Britannia Inn, with a sign out front telling passers-by that it was ‘the only pub in Dungeness’. Passing the pub, we continued to head north, stopping occasionally to inspect the rusting machinery, disintegrating fishing-boat hulls and shipping containers scattered haphazardly across the landscape.
Soon, our attention turned to the houses dotted about this desert-like area: some seemed derelict, while others looked as if they had just been lifted off the cover of the latest issue of Grand Design magazine. A number of them were in fact fashioned from disused train carriages, left behind in the days when Dungeness estate was owned by South Eastern Railway. (Today, the estate is owned by EDF, who runs the nuclear power station). Like the old boats and shipping containers, these houses, old and new, define the landscape of Dungeness.
An hour after our arrival, dark cloud started to gather above us. With the wind picking up, rain soon started to sweep across the beach. This was a reminder of what a hostile place Dungeness can be. We sought shelter in the delightful old lighthouse next to the rail station and admired the aerial view from the top, despite the wind and rain. Then, after having a nice cup of tea in the End of the Line cafe to warm ourselves up, we said goodbye to Dungeness and took the miniature train (a steam locomotive this time!) back to New Romney.
Juxtaposition is often an overused term, but there is no better way to describe Dungeness than to say that it is a place of juxtapositions. It is known for its monstrous nuclear power stations, and yet it is also a celebrated nature reserve. Many people arrive in Dungeness by the touristy miniature train, yet when they get there they will see that the place is devoid of any tourist attractions, aside from the lighthouse. Houses seem randomly dotted all over the place with no sense of planning, and yet it is notoriously difficult to get permission to build on this land. There is a distinctly gritty, no-nonsense working-class vibe associated with Dungeness, and yet it is also a place of relaxation, or even escapism, as shown on popular middle-class TV shows such as Charlie Luxton’s Homes by the Sea and Walks with My Dog (the latter of which sees the Hunters-wearing Ben Fogle ambling along Dungeness with his labrador). In fact, on the day of our visit, we saw Porsches parked outside some of the latest Grand-Designesque homes … I wonder how the original inhabitants of the railway-carriage homes would feel about their 21st-century neighbours.
I am fascinated by what draws people all over to this bleak and eerie landscape. Why does a place like Dungeness exist? Everything seems to go against common sense here. Is this the last place in England where one can still clearly sense a feeling of being alive, perhaps? Jump on the train to Dungeness, feel the landscape, and maybe you’ll know why.
p.s. special thanks to Sze Kiu, my wife, for editing this article, which was no more than just a collection of loose thoughts to start with