Today we explored the extraordinary coastal landscapes of Dungeness: miles of shingle beach, wild yet also littered with weird examples of human activities – a nuclear power station, abandoned industrial artefacts, clapboard cottages, some kept immaculately others ramshackle, boats and other paraphernalia.
The name Dungeness derives from Old Norse nes, meaning ‘headland’, with the first part probably connected with the nearby Denge Marsh.
Dungeness is one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world. It is of international conservation importance for its geomorphology, plant and birdlife. This is recognised and protected mostly through its conservation designations as a National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest.
There is a remarkable and unique variety of wildlife at Dungeness, with over 600 different types of plant (a third of all those found in Britain). It is one of the best places in Britain to find insects such as moths, bees and beetles, and spiders; many of these are very rare, some found nowhere else in Britain.
The flooded gravel pits, both brackish and fresh water, provide an important refuge for many migratory and coastal bird species. The RSPB has a bird sanctuary here.
There have been five lighthouses at Dungeness. At first only a beacon was used to give warning to sailors, but this gave way to a proper lighthouse during the reign of James I in 1615. As the sea retreated, this had to be replaced in 1635 by a new lighthouse nearer to the water’s edge.
As more shingle was thrown up, a new and more up-to-date lighthouse was built near the sea in 1792. In 1901 lighthouse number four was commissioned; then in 1961 its modern successor, the black and white lighthouse number five, was commissioned and the Old Lighthouse became a tourist attraction. Its 169 steps give visitors a bird’s eye view of the shingle beach.
Another feature of Dungeness is the scattering of small wooden houses, some owned and lived in by fishermen whose boats lie on the beach, some occupied by people trying to escape the pressured outside world. The shacks have a high value on the property market.
Perhaps the most famous house is Prospect Cottage, formerly owned by the late artist and film director Derek Jarman.
The cottage’s beach garden was made using local materials and has been the subject of several books.
Reflecting the bleak, windswept landscape of the peninsula the garden is made of pebbles, driftwood, scrap metal and a few hardy plants.
Derek Jarman was drawn to Dungeness by its desolate character; he used it as the setting for his film The Last of England, an allegory on the social and sexual inequalities in England under Thatcherism. Later that year he was diagnosed as HIV positive, and while his public life became increasingly dedicated to gay rights issues, he devoted his private life to the creation of a garden at Prospect Cottage, a fisherman’s house on a huge bank of shingle on the Kent coast.
Jarman was a relatively inexperienced gardener, and given the inhospitable conditions at Dungeness he initially had little hope of establishing a garden. But he succeeded with the help of friends, especially the photographer Howard Sooley, using local plants and gathering flints and stones to form large circular beds and standing stones, or ‘dragon’s teeth’. He also collected old fishing tackle, shells, broken garden tools, driftwood and pieces of twisted metal from old sea defences, using them as plant supports and garden sculptures. The front garden was more formal, the back garden more experimental, although there are no fences of walls anywhere.
Jarman’s garden featured in his 1989 film War Requiem, and in the following year was the focal point of The Garden, ‘a parable about the cruel and unnecessary perversion of innocence’ where it figured both as the Garden of Eden and the garden at Gethsemane.
The house was built in tarred timber. Raised wooden text on the side of the cottage is the first stanza and the last five lines of the last stanza of John Donne’s poem, The Sun Rising.
The Sun Rising by John Donne
Busie old foole, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, “All here in one bed lay.”
She’s all states, and all princes I;
Nothing else is;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls thy sphere.
In 1986, Derek Jarman was diagnosed HIV positive. In 1994, he died of an AIDS-related illness, aged 52. He is buried in the graveyard at St. Clements Church, Old Romney. We had called there on the way to Dungeness and found his grave in the churchyard.
I Walk In This Garden
In 2003 James Tucker and filmmaker friend Mike Crisp visited Prospect Cottage. This footage is edited with Donna McKevitt’s song “I Walk In This Garden”
A short experimental film shot at Dungeness, Kent, UK, in and around Derek Jarman’s garden.
Before moving on, we decided to take a short ride on the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch railway, first opened to traffic in July 1927 as the ‘World’s Smallest Public Railway’ and now covering a distance of 13.5 miles from the picturesque Cinque Port of Hythe to the fishermans cottages and lighthouses at Dungeness.
It was worth the experience – but not as picturesque a ride as we expected. Most of the time there are no views of the shore, as the railway runs aling the backs of houses facing the foreshore.
The RH&DR was the culmination of the dreams of two men; Captain J. E. P. Howey — a sometimes racing driver and millionaire land owner, and Count Louis Zborowski, a well-known racing driver of his day and considerably richer, even, than Howey. The official opening took place on 16th July 1927.
- Derek Jarman: Wikipedia
- Derek Jarman’s Garden 2003: Flickr photoset
- Remembering Derek Jarman and his magical cottage garden
- Derek Jarman: Preserving A Harlequin: tribute
2 thoughts on “Dungeness and Derek Jarman”
Please can you e-mail with regard to permission to use one of your photographs. Thanks