by R J Dent
Dungeness is a headland on the coast of Kent, England, formed largely of a shingle beach in the form of a cuspate foreland. It shelters a large area of low-lying land, Romney Marsh. Dungeness is also the name of the power station and a few buildings near the beach, and of an important ecological site at the same location. The name Dungeness derives from Old Norse nes: ‘headland’, with the first part connected with the nearby Denge Marsh.
Dungeness is one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, and is classified as Britain‘s only desert by the Met Office. It is of international conservation importance for its geomorphology, plant and invertebrate communities and birdlife. This is recognised and protected mostly through its conservation designations as a National Nature Reserve (NNR), a Special Protection Area (SPA), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and part of the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) of Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay.
There is a remarkable variety of wildlife living at Dungeness, with over 600 different types of plant: a third of all those found in Britain. It is one of the best places in Britain to find insects such as moths, bees and beetles, and spiders; many of these are very rare, some found nowhere else in Britain.
One of the most remarkable features of the site is an area known as ‘the patch’ or, by anglers, as ‘the boil’. The waste hot water and sewage from the Dungeness nuclear power stations are pumped into the sea through two outfall pipes, enriching the biological productivity of the sea bed and attracting seabirds from miles around.
There have been five lighthouses at Dungeness. From the mid-19th century, the lighthouse was painted black with a white band to make it more visible in daylight; similar colours have featured on the subsequent lighthouses. This lighthouse was demolished in 1904, but the lighthouse keepers’ accommodation, built in a circle around the base of the tower, still exists.
The building of the fourth lighthouse, the High Light Tower, started in 1901. It was first lit on 31 March 1904 and still stands today. It is no longer in use as a lighthouse but is open as a visitor attraction. It is a circular brick structure, 41 m (135 feet) high and 11 m (36 feet) in diameter at ground level. It has 169 steps, and gives visitors a good view of the shingle beach.
As the sea receded further, and after building the nuclear power station which obscured the light of the 1904 lighthouse, a fifth lighthouse, Dungeness Lighthouse was built.
There are two nuclear power stations at Dungeness, the first built in 1965 and the second in 1983. They are within a wildlife sanctuary deemed a Site of Special Scientific Interest and despite high safety risks posed by the station, birds do flourish in the warmer water created by the station’s outflow.The older power station closed on 31 December 2006, while the newer station has had its licence extended to 2018.
In addition to the power station and lighthouse, there is a scattered collection of dwellings. Some of the homes, small wooden houses in the main, many built around old railway coaches, are owned and occupied by fishermen, whose boats lie on the beach; some are occupied by people trying to escape the pressured outside world.
The shack-like properties have a high value on the property market. Perhaps the most famous house is Prospect Cottage, formerly owned by the late artist and film director Derek Jarman.
Prospect Cottage is painted black, with yellow window and door frames. There is a poem, part of John Donne’s ‘The Sunne Rising’, written on one outside wall in black lettering.
But the garden is the main attraction: reflecting the bleak, windswept landscape of the peninsula, Derek Jarman’s garden is made of pebbles, driftwood, scrap metal and a few hardy plants.
A Dungeness house known as Garden Cottage is featured on the cover of Pink Floyd’s album A Collection of Great Dance Songs.
Dungeness now appears quite often in music videos, album covers and adverts. The shingle beach and fishermen’s shacks feature extensively in the Lighthouse Family promotional video for their 1998 song ‘High’. The acoustic mirror at Dungeness is featured on the cover of the album Ether Song by the British indie band Turin Brakes.
Dungeness appears on the covers of albums as diverse as So Much for the City by The Thrills and Aled by Aled Jones. The Prodigy’s single ‘Invaders Must Die’ video was filmed in Dungeness, and shows both the acoustic mirrors and the lighthouse. The BBC filmed episodes of Doctor Who in Dungeness during the 1970s.
The 1981 fantasy film Time Bandits shot its ‘Time of Legends’ sequence on the beach, and Dungeness was used to film a scene in Danny Boyle’s Trance. Much of the Michael Winterbottom’s 1998 film I Want You was set in and around Dungeness: the lead character’s home was one of the wooden beach dwellings.
Copyright © R J Dent (2014)
All photos by R J Dent
Photos Copyright © R J Dent (2014)