The View from Here: Dungeness

The panorama is surreal, alien, unique
The view from here is harsh and it takes no prisoners

I may have been eager for what has seemed like an especially long winter to end, but a small part of me has been glad we have had to wait for a run of reliable spring days, because I have been writing about Dungeness in winter.  A task which doesn’t sit easily among vistas of skipping lambs and primroses, soft blue skies and playful breezes.

Indeed, how to start?  How to encapsulate our few days in such an alien landscape?  Blake comes close:

“Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings

To his strong bones, strides o’er the groaning rocks:

He withers all in silence, and his hand

Unclothes the earth and freezes up frail life.”

–  William Blake, Poetical Sketches – Winter, 1783

We were there in February: the most surreal, otherworldly, visceral few days I’ve had for a long while.

seagulls

Dungeness lies on the south coast of England.  Some sources like to claim it as Britain’s only desert.  The Met Office clarifies:

The standard definition of a desert is that it has very little rainfall and that can be for various reasons – such as being in an area of persistent high pressure. Another characteristic is that we see large differences between day and night temperatures. Neither of these apply to areas in the UK.

So, Dungeness is not a desert.  But it can seem as vast and empty as a desert.  Here is the view from the decking of our temporary home:

IMG_20180220_135725

The largest expanse of shingle in Europe and one of the largest in the world.

It’s the southernmost point on the Kent coast: a shifting shingle spit which catches the full force of the tidal elements.  Its rainfall is low.  It’s a nature reserve and a site of special scientific interest: 600 species of plant can be found here – more than a third of all the species to be found in the UK.

But in February the plant life is sparse.  You must look hard for signs of new growth.  Taking a closer look beside the plank in the photo above reveals this:

IMG_1673

I suspect that for much of the year Dungeness is a place stark in the extreme.  Bleak.  Desolate. Wonderfully invigorating.  I loved it.

seagulls

We were there just ahead of The Beast from the East.  The outside temperatures plumbed the depths.  The wind was as raw and penetrating as I have ever known.  Yet inside was warm and silent – a carapace sheltering us alongside the carcass of an original railway carriage.  (There are many incorporated into homes here.)

 

 

The sun shone quite a lot and the light was often blinding.  Which makes it all the harder to convey quite how bitter it was outside.  With no trees, there is no point of reference for the wind.  You look outside and you see expanses of shingle, frequently in bright sunshine.  Nothing bends, nothing moves.  The gulls appear to have learned to fly with the wind rather than against it and their graceful arcs and parabolas give no clues.

Every time I ventured out felt like a body blow.  It could not possibly be that cold; the wind could not possibly be that strong.  I went out often; I walked several times a day; the cold didn’t matter. It was both enervating and exhilarating.  This counterpoint became a theme for our time in Dungeness: always that juxtaposition of opposites.

seagulls

The panorama is surreal, alien, unique.  What I saw in February was a vista devoid of the softness of planting, bathed in sunshine for much of the time but without its warming balm.  What I saw was a landscape pared back to essentials.  The view from here is harsh and it takes no prisoners.

And within that skeletal frame I explored:

house silhouette

a straggling road with wires strung between pylons and poles and peppered with a  posse of homes – peeling, forlorn; opulent, architectural.  Lives lived in the publicity of privacy;

pylons

layers of lighthouses old and new;

lighthouse silhouette

and a lament of industries past against the brooding backdrop of nuclear power.

tracks

As I said, everywhere that juxtaposition.

I also read a book – set here, in Dungeness: an experience in itself.

They were nearing the end of the promontory.  The road veered suddenly to the right, away from the sea. 

“Now left,” he said, and she turned again.

“God, its bleak.”

“It’s how we like it.”

The Birdwatcher – William Shaw

birdwatchers

I’ll get to all of this, in time…

(Part one of several)

24 thoughts on “The View from Here: Dungeness”

  1. Lovely piece! I’ve never been to Dungeness but found Derek Jarman’s descriptions of the landscape in his diaries absolutely fascinating. As I’m sure you know, he tended a garden there – you’ve probably come across it on your travels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Paula 🙂 I have a number of posts planned about Dungeness; it’s filled with such inspiration. The second post, in the coming week, features Derek’s garden – although as you can imagine, it’s not at its best in February.

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  2. You are a sorceress of language. Not only the treeless expanse unfolded before my eyes, the lashings of the invisible wind spurred many emotions, cold-warm and bitter-sweet all at the same time.

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  3. How very curious that it is a real place in England. In Oregon we ate Dungeness Crab. I wonder how it ever got that name. It was truly wonderful crab. We would have them steam one and break it in half. Then we would happily sit and pick the meat out.

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    1. Apparently it is a real place in America too, Elizabeth. I wondered if it had originated from ‘our’ Dungeness but wikipedia tells me the name comes from the port ‘Dungeness’ in Washington. I’ve never made up my mind on whether I like crab. It seems such a lot of effort to pick out the good parts!

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  4. I don’t know Dungeness and I’m not sure how I’d react to it. I love bleakness. I love the sea, especially when it’s wild and empty of human life. But I’m not good at flatlands, preferring undulations and hills to carry me through the bleakness. So I look forward to your posts to help me see whether Dungeness and I would get on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand, Margaret, and generally I’m the same. Is Dungeness beautiful – many would say not. Parts of it are quite the opposite. It’s most certainly atmospheric; that’s what grabs me. And it’s pretty unique! The other posts will follow along slowly and we’ll see what you make of it!

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    1. I found it a wonderful place, Kerry. (Hence the need to write a lot about it.) And yes, it is that flat! Like you, I wonder what draws us to these places. Perhaps I’ll find some answers for myself as I work through what I want to say about it. 🙂

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  5. Like other commentators, I have always wanted to visit this unique and fascinating part of our island, not least because of Derek Jarman’s garden. Your evocative post is an excellent substitute in the meantime and I look forward to the next one very much 🙂

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  6. Oh, wow! I’ve never thought to visit Dungeness. I associate it with the nuclear power station. Your description of the landscape makes me want to go, though. Also, have you read anything by Tom Cox? He used to have a column in the Guardian called 21st Century Yokel and recently published a book of essays under the same title. He lives on Dartmoor, but grew up on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border and lived for a time in Norfolk. He’s one of my favourite nature and landscape writers.

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    1. I still have a lot more to say about Dungeness, Jan, so keep watching before you make your decision 🙂 (Always assuming I get myself together enough to finish off the posts that remain in various stages of completion!) I had not heard of Tom Cox – thank you! I shall definitely be following up on him. (I see that he also includes cats in his repertoire. That can only be good!)

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      1. I’ve just read your second Dungeness post and seen how the power station looms over the landscape. Your reference to the privacy of the people who live there gave me pause, too. I would feel like an intruder, I think, contributing to the interruption of their solitude. Although the thought of that solitude and anonymity also appeals.

        Tom’s cats feature in a lot of his writing. I haven’t read any of his cat books. I don’t know why, because I’m cat mad. From what I’ve heard, they’re less Cat Books and more reflections on life that happen to feature cats, so maybe I should give them a try.

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        1. I understand what you mean re Dungeness, Jan, and I felt it too. But living here in touristy Cornwall I also see it from the other side: people learn to live with tourists which are often of course, a primary source of revenue. It’s a dichotomy. All I can say is that the uniqueness and the atmosphere of Dungeness was such an integral part of the experience for me that it was able to override my discomfort at ‘intruding’.

          I shall certainly be investigating Tom’s cat books!

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