Dungeness: dropped from the back of a lorry

This was once a lonely, forgotten place and people who came here did so because they wanted the lifestyle that went with it: private and elemental

Under the looming geometry of the power station, small shacks were dotted about untidily, as if they’d been dropped accidentally from the back of a lorry.  In recent years, the millionaires had arrived.  Some huts had been rebuilt as luxury houses with big glass doors and shiny flues.  Others still looked like they were made from scraps pilfered from a tip.

The Birdwatcher (William Shaw)

Shaw’s main character is a man of few words but his terse description of the residential aspect of Dungeness is spot on.  I’ll try to follow on in my more rambling style, and attempt to encapsulate my own experience of the juxtapositions; the randomness and the contrasts among the dwellings and inhabitants of this surreal place.

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Dungeness Estate is privately owned, most recently by the French company, EDF Energy, who also own the power stations.  Over the years it has alternated between private and corporate ownership: a few owners back, it was owned by Southern Rail, then to become British Rail.  I mention this to explain how it came to be that a proliferation of old railway carriages ended up on this forlorn beach.  Dungeness was literally the end of the line. In the 1920s, employees purchased old rolling stock and had them towed off the tracks to become holiday homes.  They joined the smattering of fishing families who were already living on the beach and a strange community was born.  Today there are still a few fishing families.  And the railways carriages have remained – incorporated into a hotchpotch of dwellings.

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Not so many years ago, dungieMike, whose archived blog has kept me distracted for far too long, described Dungeness as:

… boasting only the aforementioned lighthouses, a lifeboat and around 80 assorted shacks within which reside a collection of individualists escaping the torments of the outside ‘civilised’ world.

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Elsewhere on his blog he describes himself as:

semi-retired – can’t afford full retirement with a 12-year-old daughter – purchased his shack on beach in 1971, moving more or less permanently in 1977

One of the ‘individualists’ himself, I suspect.  I would have liked to have met him while we were there.

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And so we have this curious mix: long-standing fishing families; seekers of solitude or an alternative lifestyle, or perhaps – as I think of the characters in Shaw’s The Birdwatcher – a place to hide; each hunkered down alongside wealthy second-homers and tourists.

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When the railway carriages first arrived, they could be acquired for £10 to £20.  Now, refurbished or not, Dungeness homes sell for large sums of money.  The area has become a tourist trap – and we of course, are a part of that.

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Our ‘home’ was architecturally designed around its original railway carriage and very nice it was too.  Quirky, minimalist, eco-friendly; it’s the one with the big glass doors and the shiny flue.  We met the owner, who was lovely.  They had the place built more than 10 years ago and use it at constantly at weekends in the summer.  It was clear how much she loved it.  She did warn us that the neighbours valued their privacy and didn’t take kindly to strangers wandering near to their property.  We had a touch of this when our friend, Karina, visiting us for the night, accidentally took the wrong gravel track and pulled up in front of the wrong house.

And I can understand.  This was once a lonely, forgotten place and people who came here did so because they wanted the lifestyle that went with it: private and elemental.  With so many tourists now, albeit very few in February, that has changed significantly.

In large part, the arrival of the late film producer, Derek Jarman, began the transformation from little known and little visited community of individuals, to trendy hotspot for London types.

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He created a famous garden around his ‘shack’ using driftwood and flotsam and local plants.  The plants, of course, are not visible in February, but his house is still easily identified, and I feel for the current owners, who must have a constant stream of tourists clicking away.  That said, they’ve made no effort to change the distinctive look of the house so perhaps they accept what comes with owning a small part of history.  There was no one living there while we were staying; I walked past numerous times and made quite sure, before surreptitiously pointing the camera.

I still felt uncomfortable; I felt uncomfortable taking a number of these shots, which is partly why many of them are not great.  Yet I still felt compelled to take them.  The place is so unique and it leaves its mark on my soul.

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The Shingle House is part of a project to place modern architecture in unusual locations and allow people the experience of staying in these unique properties.  I can say with authority that the location of The Shingle House isn’t ideal; there are much better ‘unique’ spots on Dungeness beach.  The property itself looked impressive though.  More glass, more shiny flues.

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This slightly different angle illustrates that always – be it Jarman’s original trendy home, or these much more recent additions – always the spectre of the power stations lurk on the horizon.

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And alongside these monied homes we have the regular dwellings and the weird dwellings: the homes of genuine Dungeness families and those who’ve joined them for reasons of their own.

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The thinner road was pitted.  At the shoreline, loose stones crackled under the tyres.  Flat land to the north; flat sea to the south.  Weather-beaten houses with rotting windows and satellite dishes dribbling rust-marks down the paintwork.

The Birdwatcher (William Shaw)

As I walked and watched and wondered, I passed residents going about their lives as all of us do.

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A man passed me on a bicycle; a woman jogging disappeared down the long, impossibly flat road. And a woman pushing a buggy came steadily towards me.  It is this last image that I wish I had captured on camera because it summed up for me my confusion over how it might be to live here.  Why did I not point and shoot?  Perhaps because it stopped me in my tracks; perhaps because this image made me the most uncomfortable of all.  The woman was walking along a road with a scattering of dwellings on either side.  (I really can’t describe them as ‘houses’.)  The ubiquitous pylons were garlanded along each side of the road.  The lady was walking towards me and in the background, at her back, the enormous brooding hulk of the reactors.

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I have no interest in debating the pros and cons of nuclear power on this blog.  I am simply stating that I found this sight disturbing: a young woman pushing an infant in a buggy against the backdrop of the power stations.  It’s not unique; there are plenty of other places in the world where people live alongside such energy sources.  People settle and make homes in the most difficult, stark and dramatic of places.  People are unerringly adaptable.  For me, it was another example – perhaps the rawest example – of the juxtapositions of this unique and glorious place.

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A track led away from the main road.  DS Cupidi looked ahead, at the massive buildings in front of her. “Jesus, what’s that?”

“Nuclear power station,” said South.

“Wow. I mean… I didn’t realise it was here.”

Behind the black tower of the old lighthouse, the metal and concrete blocks that surrounded the two reactors rose, unnaturally massive in the flat land.  Those colossal shapes were surrounded by rows of tall razor-wire fences.  As Cupidi and South approached, the buildings seemed to grow still larger.  Their presence made this landscape even more Martian.  To their north, lines of pylons marched inland across wide shingle beds.

“Aren’t you worried it’ll blow up?”

The Birdwatcher (William Shaw)

I’ll close with a lucky shot, taken at speed in poor light, of another creature adept in adaptation. A splash of living nature amid the wayward constructions of man.

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(Part two of several)

45 thoughts on “Dungeness: dropped from the back of a lorry”

  1. I love visitng Dungeness, well to be truthful four times in my whole life, but you only need one visit to make an impact. Recently twice we have gone for the day in autumn, both times grey and brooding and I couldn’t stop taking photos; as you say, unsure how much I was intruding. The station cafe makes a warm rendezvous point with companions so I could just wander alone.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely, Janet: this one visit has made a massive impact on me. We didn’t stop in the station cafe though we did have a meal in the pub just off the estate. (The Britannia, on the beach, was being refurbished.) Going into the pub was quite a shock; so warm (literally and metaphorically) and welcoming. A dramatic contrast! I also agree about wandering alone there. The human silence that accompanies an isolated walk is perfect for such a desolate spot.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It is incredible to see how people adapt to certain environments and to see where they’ll go in search of their own space and a little privacy. Excellent post and photos Sandra, including the shot you didn’t get, so well imagined I can see it in my mind’s eye.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can understand that, Rose. I wouldn’t want to paint the locals as hostile but I’m sure they’re protective of their lifestyle (and privacy). It does feel alien; it’s certainly unique. I really did love it – the bleakness and the harshness. But it was like a different world.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Near to where I live is a tiny community of boatsheds and fishing shacks which are not supposed to be used for overnight use (but would be). Not so alien looking as Dungeness, but possibly with a similar feel from the people own the properties who value their privacy. The shacks rarely come up for sale and feel as if they are a world away from Melbourne but are snuggled right into the edge.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. These little pockets of difference which are so close to the busyness of everyday civilisation are fascinating. I suppose each of us escape in our different ways. Books, for example! 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Great posts, Sandra (this and the first one on Dungeness). It’s not a place I’d thought of as holiday destination, although we went there one day when we were staying at Hythe – just to see what it’s like. I rather liked the strangeness of it – it must be unique, but I felt most uneasy driving along – definitely an outsider. We sat on the shingle for a while looking out to sea – and then left.

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    1. It really is so different to the busy and beautiful world that we’re accustomed to; I understand exactly how you felt, Margaret. And there’s certainly not a lot to do! Although I wouldn’t refuse an opportunity to go back, I doubt that I’d would seek one out. I think for me it was the sudden immersion in this unique place that touched me. And I’m not sure that could happen a second time.

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  4. What an incredible and memorable experience for you Sandra. Your writing reads like the stuff of fiction (I have acquired the Williamt Shaw, by the way, which sounds brilliant), making it all the more eerie and affecting to know that it is a record of fact. Stunning.

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    1. The Shaw book is uncanny in its sense of the place. What he says about the place is absolutely accurate. It was quite eerie reading the book in situ. A great experience!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Derrick. Sometimes, we are told, a picture paints a thousand words. And occasionally a few words paint a picture. (One of my favourite things in producing this blog: trying to get a balance between the two mediums 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I find myself still contemplating the notion of living there, Marina. It would take too many words to try to expand on that right now. It might make an appropriate conclusion to this collection of posts!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You have managed to soak the entire landscape in a surreptitiousness of sorts. There is something out there I can’t quite place my finger at. Is it the reclusiveness of the folks who have chosen to fuse with the surroundings out there? Is it abandonment and quest for belonging that seem to ride the very air? Is it some kind of fear, anger or guilt? Nuclear technology has the miracles to propel the humanity into the uncharted crevices of the universe. Conversely, it may reduce our species into a fine ionic dust.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is indeed a place which raises more questions than it answers, Uma. A place of so many contrasts and contradictions. I have to tell you that while I’m writing these posts, I find myself thinking of India. I have never visited but in my thoughts it too, is a place of many and varied contrasts and contradictions. 🙂

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      1. Sandra, India is a blistering medley of conflicts and controversies. I am sure it would figure somewhere on the travel advisories of saner lands, but you are welcome, anytime and forever!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “A blistering medley of conflicts and controversies…” what a stunning encapsulation! It fascinates me that I can think of the vibrant melee that I imagine to be India, which is such a vast country, and see parallels with the isolated emptiness that is Dungeness – a tiny part of a very small country. We live in a wondrous world 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  6. It seems as if your word pictures, as well as your shots have captured the essence of this extraordinary place. I’m not sure how much I want to visit it. It feels as if it’s an experience, and one to remember. Venice it ain’t. Which would be a reason in fact to add it to the list, as mega-tourist destinations are no longer on my must-visit list.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This really makes me want to visit Sandra – ‘The Birdwatcher’ sparked my fascination but in a more abstract way, your post does a great job of describing the atmosphere and contradictions of the place.

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    1. Andrea, based on your blog writing, I think you would appreciate Dungeness. The space, the desolation – the unheard stories tossed among the shingle…. 🙂


  8. The contrasts are fascinating, and you capture them so effectively! We have a similar mix here but not nearly as pronounced and no nuclear power plant! Small, dilapidated “camps” sit on the lake next to old farmhouses and new McMansions. The mix of people can be tense, too–the old-timers, the newbies, the summer people. And foxes!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. J > This is a wonderful, thoughtful, and well-informed post. I walked at Dungeness and through Romney Marsh about 20yrs ago, on a 300 mile walk I called ‘Around the Weald in 18 days’ : Dungeness was one of the highlights! BTW, I think The Pebble House was featured in one of Kevin MacLeod’s ‘Grand Designs’ D and I were unimpressed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder what changes there have been since your epic walk, Jonathan. A few more shiny flues I imagine! I also wonder about Grand Designs. I shall keep my eyes open in case it features on one of the ubiquitous repeats 🙂


  10. One of the delights of my WordPress website is that I get to see through the eyes and photos of others places I never knew existed. Sandra, this is such an interesting photo/essay, touching on not just a geographical place, but a real insight into the conflict of locals and gentrification. The area reminds me of areas I know in the southern most part of the state of New Jersey, and the people who choose to live in the remote coastal areas, often accessible only at low tide and not very welcoming to the ‘moneyed city folks’ who have transformed old fishing cottages into summer get always. Thank you for this glimpse into a a very new and yet familiar place.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m delighted that it touched you, JoHanna. It had such a strong impression on me. I was always struck by the polarities of the area itself. Through the comments here I’ve learned too, of the similar pockets in many parts of the world. It has brought to life the many similarities and differences we share in a way that I hadn’t considered whilst immersed in the immediacy of the place itself.

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    2. One of the delights of blogging for me too, is the glimpse into other places. I knew about Dungeness, but this has filled in a lot of detail for me.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Wonderful photos Sandra. This place is synonymous for me with William Shaw’s novel “The Birdwatcher”. (It is sad that I’m not much of a traveler – I usually travel via the printed page.)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I really enjoyed reading this, and I found your observations fascinating. It’s intetesting to think there are still places with some mystery and impact left to us, in our built up world

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it 🙂 You’re absolutely right: we need these places of mystery and impact. Dungeness made sufficient impact that I’ve still have a couple more posts I want to write about it – whether I’ll manage it remains to be seen. Never enough time!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. A place I have known well all of my life, and have always been drawn to. Something about that ‘end of the line’ appeals. Family holidays in Dymchurch or St Mary’s Bay before 1966, and later trips to Rye, or Folkestone. I could never resist a diversion to Dungeness, and still can’t. You capture it well, and it is a very much love it or hate it place. I am not sure how I feel about it, but certain I could find some peace in that alien landscape. Even the grim name holds its own fascination.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Pete, I certainly found a sense of peace there and it stays with me still. We never went there in my childhood – seaside visits were generally to Camber Sands although we often went to Dymchurch, so we were certainly in the area. (I grew up in Kent.) I found with this visit, a sense of stepping outside of time and the rest of the world. Dungeness seemed to abide by its own rhythm.

      Great to have you pop by! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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