a few weeks before christmas i visited a part of the coast of england which i had never had any cause to go near before. as someone who is quite accustomed, and indeed a hearty supporter of, walks along abandoned beaches in winter, this was obviously a quite exciting prospect. whilst we were based in camber, which i would definitely recommend as a terrific winter beach – camber sands was a huge expanse of nothing, it was the short hop down the coast to dungeness that left a lasting impression.
situated at the dropping off point of kent on the east coast, dungeness is a headland like no other i have seen in this country. as the road winds towards the coast there is a certain point where you switch from being in the uk to regarding an ‘other place.’ the vast expanse of, well, not much, feels far more like the images you see of abandoned scandanavian coastal regions than britain. following signs for the old lighthouse, the barely marked road flanked on one side by ‘the village’ on one side and the expanse of shingle on the other.
the accommodation of dungeness village resembles a cross between railway carriages, tin huts and sheds. at the time i felt this was a mere observation, but it turns out that the majority of the chalet-esque huts are actually built around the base block of railway carriages from the point in the headland’s history when the southern railway owned the majority of the land. these are building constructed to stand up to bracing elements, but also to retain a sense of impermanence. one picks up a sense of a classic ‘stay indoors until the strangers pass’ spaghetti western in terms of atmosphere, though then again i did visit early-ish on a saturday morning, with the only people out and about on the ‘streets’ an assortment of folks gauping at the bleakness (like myself), fishermen (who one presume are all very accustomed to this view) and twitchers who had ventured down from the rspb reserve. that said, the britannia inn was hugely welcoming. there was something quite fantastic about drinking in what felt like the last pub in the country, the warmth of the open fire and strange collection of keyrings almost accentuating the nothingness outside.
the beach at dungeness is famed for being one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world, and as such is of ecological and scientific importance. the headland is protected through various means, including designation as a national nature reserve, special protection area, special area of conservation and a site of specific scientific interest. december wasn’t the right time to go hunting for wildlife, though some research suggests that this part of the world is home to a host of rare spiders, beetles, moths and bees. on my visit, the main focus was on taking a wander along the boardwalk over the shingle to reach the coast.
on the headland itself there are three main landmarks which standout when looking back from the coast. the most attractive two points are the lighthouses which stand at either end of the main residential stretch, with the nuclear power station lurking in the background. at one end is the 1901 built high light tower/the old lighthouse. this name could be seen as something of a misnomer, given that it is actually the fourth lighthouse which has stood on this stretch of coastline. due to the shifting nature of the sea, the beacons constructed in 1615, 1635 and 1790 all became increasingly redundant as the coast receded, meaning that the growing shingle banks were creating a greater distance between the beacons and the ships they were to guide. the light from the 1901 lighthouse, first lit in 1904, could be seen from 18 miles away. however, the building of the power station in the 1950s blocked the beam from the lighthouse, thus rendering it as redundant as those which preceded it. however, this lighthouse escaped the bulldozer, and stands now as a tourist attraction.
the fifth dungeness lighthouse was first lit in 1961, and continues to provide a beacon for sailors along the east coast now. where the old lighthouse has a very traditional fat at the bottom tapering towards lantern design, this 60s piece of utilitarian engineering stands like an interjection of the modern world into the forgotten surroundings of dungeness, though with far more conventional beauty that the behemoth-esque lines of the nuclear power stations which sit beyond the old lighthouse. i think the 1961 lighthouse is possibly the focal point of this conurbation, but then again i am a sucker for that era of design.
i’ll also posit a controversial point; i’m moved to argue that the power stations actually add to the feel of dungeness. there is something about the looming presence of the huge buildings which offsets the cluster of huts which make up the village – the power stations lend a sense of solidness which adds to the accumulated emptiness of the rest of the landscape, a concrete concretion within the shingle.
yet it is not the power stations which characterise this area. dungeness is all about the relationship between the shingle, sea, rails and time. the human hand shows itself in the placement of objects, yet it is the battle between object, elements and the clock which give this area a real sense of place, a place which is nowhere yet could not exist anywhere but here. dungeness is about huts and boats which were once by the sea, but have been left to decay as the sea continued its journey away from the english coast, receding back into itself, leaving these objects as remainders of a time which may have passed 10 days ago, 10 years ago, 10 generations ago. it is this complex relationship which may yet prove the final undoing of dungeness too, with some theorists positing that the sea will return inland within the next 150 years or so, leaving only the lighthouses above the waves as a reminder of the lives which once floated here.