Dungeness: strange beauty under threat

Dungeness: strange beauty under threat

A couple of years ago, we visited Dungeness, on the trail of Derek Jarman and wanting to see a place described in today’s Observer as one of ‘strange beauty’.  Indeed, this largest expanse of shingle beach in Europe is a landscape that haunts the imagination, the shingle stretching to meet an endless sea and sky, dotted with rare plants usually at home in the desert. Windswept and lonely, birds wheel and call in a sky that goes on forever.

Where the shingle ends on the landward  side are dotted 99 Dungeness houses – many of them built on top of Victorian railway carriages dragged on to the shingle a century ago, and one of them Prospect Cottage, the former home of Derek Jarman.  Look in one direction and the black and white stripes of the lighthouse interrupts the horizon; in the opposite direction squats the grey hulk of the nuclear power station.


Now, according to The Observer, this wild and beautiful place is threatened by a plan that would mean up to 100 quarry lorries a day trundling along the unmade road for five days a week and diggers scooping out up to 30,000 tonnes of shingle a year to dump it back into the sea a few miles away down the coast – to prop up the beach in front of the power station.

Derek Jarman in the garden at Prospect Cottage in 1992

In 2008, Howard Sooley (whose photographs illustrated the book Derek Jarman’s Garden) wrote in The Observer about this strange but beautiful landscape:

Dungeness is a dynamic and wild landscape….there’s little hope of thinking you’re in charge of nature here… a shifting spit of shingle jutting out in the English channel, being fought over by the waves from two sides and encroaching grass from the other….and right at the end ……a nuclear power station ( I have yet to understand the thinking behind it’s positioning). […] The horizon….is endless, broken only occasionally by telegraph poles pushing up from the verge of the road only to be dwarfed by the magnitude of the sky above.  As we walked along in the sun Derek started to reveal the treasures of the ness, the curious emerging purple shoots of sea kale (crambe martina) anchored deep in the moving shingle with their long tap roots, the misty blue leaves of the yellow horned poppy pushing past the dry dead spires of last years dock flowers, a maritime form of herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) in a tight alpine dome and the entwining tendrils of a sea pea. The native wild flowers of Dungeness are something special to see, though some are hard to see lost between the immensity of the sky and shingle.

Modern Nature, written by Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage during 1989 and 1990 after he had been diagnosed as HIV positive, opens with this entry for Sunday 1 January 1989:

Prospect Cottage, its timbers black with pitch, stands on the shingle at Dungeness. Built eighty years ago at the sea’s edge – one stormy night many years ago waves roared up to the front door threatening to swallow it . . . Now the sea has retreated leaving bands of shingle. You can see these clearly from the air; they fan out from the lighthouse at the tip of the Ness like contours on a map.

Prospect faces the rising sun across a road sparkling silver with sea mist.  One small clump of dark green broom breaks through the flat ochre shingle.  Beyond, at the sea’s edge, are silhouetted a jumble of huts and fishing boats, and a brick kutch, Iong abandoned, which has sunk like a pillbox at a crazy angle; in it, many years ago, the fishermen’s nets were boiled in amber preservative. There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon. In this desolate landscape the silence is only broken by the wind, and the gulls squabbling round the fishe~men bringing in the afternoon catch. There is more sunlight here than anywhere in Britain; this and the constant wind turn the shingle into a stony desert where only the toughest grasses take a hold – paving the way for sage-green sea kale, blue bugloss, red poppy, yellow sedum.

The shingle is home to larks. In the spring I’ve counted as many as a dozen singing high above, lost in a blue sky. Flocks of greenfinches wheel past in spirals, caught in a scurrying breeze. At low tide the sea rolls back to reveal a wide sandbank, on which seabirds vanish like quicksilver as they fly close to the ground. Gulls feed alongside fishermen digging lug. When a winter storm blows up, cormorants skim the waves that roar along the Ness – throwing stones pell-mell along the steep bank. The view from my kitchen at the back of the house is bounded to the left by the old Dungeness lighthouse, and the iron grey bulk of the nuclear reactor – in front of which dark green broom and gorse, bright with yellow flowers, have formed little islands in the shingle, ending in a scrubby copse of sallow and ash dwarfed and blasted by the gales.

In the middle of the copse is a barren pear tree that has struggled for a  century to reach ten feet; underneath this a carpet of violets. Gnarled dog roses guard this secret spot – where on a calm summer day meadow browns and blues congregate in their hundreds, floating past the spires of nettles thick with black tortoiseshell caterpillars. High above a lone hawk hovers, while far away on the blue horizon the tall medieval tower of Lydd church, the cathedral of the marshes, comes and goes in a heat haze.

This lovely place – ‘these precious fragments’ in Jarman’s words – should not be defiled and desecrated.

to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
 no longer remembered as earth
 may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
 perform an archaeology of soul
 on these precious fragments
 all that remains of our vanished days
 here – at the sea’s edge
 I have planted a stony garden
 dragon tooth dolmen spring up
 to defend the porch
 steadfast warriors

– Derek Jarman, journal, 13 February 1989

Derek Jarman’s ‘dragon tooth dolmen’

See also

Dungeness and Derek Jarman

Dungeness and Derek Jarman


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.