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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Part two of several)