Once you reach the edge of Romney Marsh, with Lydd at your back, and in front of you the vast, open sky, and the flatlands and the shacks leading to the promontory and out into the sea, you can’t help but wonder at what point, when you took that right turn, past the shrunken houses and the narrow gauge railway, did you end up in this ‘other’ place.
Dungeness sits between two worlds. I suppose you could say its neither here nor there. A bone-bleached shingle wilderness precariously placed on the south-eastern edge of England. It can be all too easily dismissed as a ghostly apparition, calling out from a distant past, but then there is something else, something carried on the wind, trapped within the light, a pervading sense that this is the future – albeit one that we have yet to arrive at.
A first time visitor may not immediately appreciate this seemingly bleak and desolate, windswept wilderness with its sparse vegetation, skeletal hulks of a diminished local fishing industry, tar-blackened outhouses and woven paths of rusted wires and discarded paraphernalia, all dusted down with a layer of crystals formed by the penetrating salt-filled air.
Yet Dungeness is far from this vision of a barren, impotent wasteland. It is, in effect, a very large and constantly moving shingle promontory, and one of Europe’s best examples of a cuspate foreland – a result of long shore drift forming banks that protrude into the sea.
Although the name is more likely to be an amalgam from the Old Norse for headland – ‘ness’ – and the nearby Denge marsh, it is due to this ‘protrusion’ that popular etymology ascribes a French origin for the toponym, a variation on ‘dangerous nose’ (nez dangereuse).
The shingle has been moving constantly north-east since its origins at Pett Level near Hastings further along the coast. Not surprisingly the area is volatile and at high risk of flooding.
There must have been some deliberation in the early nineteen sixties when the Central Electricity Generating Board decided to build a nuclear reactor for all intents and purposes, on shifting sands.
In for a penny, in for a pound, a second reactor was added in the 1980s.
In order to protect the power stations it has been necessary to maintain the sea defences to prevent the natural coastal erosion. The sea moves the shingle away at such a rate, a staggering 6m per year, that a Sisyphean bucket brigade of dumper trucks relays back and forth across the shingle, shoreing up what will soon be gone again. Nature’s revenge you might think, for those carbuncle barnacles determinedly fixed onto the back of the leviathan.
Yet, paradoxically, this symbiosis has startling ecological benefits, and it all boils down, quite literally, to the place the local fishermen call, ‘The Patch’. The waste hot water and sewage from the 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.
Indeed, far from barren, Dungeness is teeming with life. Pioneer species colonise the shore. Hardy perennials rise to the challenge of living life between the salt-marsh and the deep blue sea. Ecological succession establishes order, resulting in a climatic climax.
The nutrient rich shingle harbours an abundance of plant and invertebrate communities, mammals and birdlife. A third of all types of plant species found in Britain are found here. Many of the rarest insects and spiders can be seen here, some of them found nowhere else in Britain.
It is a designated National Nature Reserve (NNR); a Special Protection Area (SPA); a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
As well as the plant and animal life, the power stations and the lighthouses, the fishermen, the birds and the patch, a small community has settled here. There are tar-blackened bungalows and cottages; huts, shacks and lean-to’s, even architect-designed eco-houses; made from old railway cars, and caravans, old fishing boats and driftwood.
The more conventional temptations of nearby New Romney, Dymchurch, or Lydd are not for those souls who seek solace amongst the sea-kale and shingle of Dungeness.
They are the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore, either by sea, or by choice. Each of them believing that they have found a special place.
For it is a special place, this Dungeness. An other-worldly shingle desert complete with a shimmering nuclear mirage, and dotted with oases of hermit-crab like abodes. The air fizzes in your ears, as the wind chafes your cheeks, and the salt frosts your lips, and you can almost count each individual particle of light as they hang suspended in the space that is neither here nor there.