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’

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