Seaside postcard 2: Dungeness It's the UK's largest expanse of shingle. It's made up of 4000 exposed acres of pebbles. It's got two lighthouses, a nuclear power station and a scrappy street of tumbledown cottages. It's 23 miles from the nearest Argos. It's the most southeasterly point in England. In the winter it's utterly bleak and miserably windswept. It's not somewhere you'd ever go accidentally. It'sDungeness. I loved it.
Only a few scattered clumps of sea kale and sea campion have managed to colonise the broad strip of barren stones closest to the water's edge. Here and there lie abandoned boats, some still seaworthy, others that will never sail again. Rusty metal tracks lead out past tumbledown huts to the summit of a steep shingle bank. Repeated wave action has built up the pebbles into perfectly-ridged steps [photo], at risk of being destroyed underfoot by hordes of thoughtless human footsteps. Thankfully few come, and the English Channel is always ready with a fresh top-up.
Dungeness Power Station: What else would you build in the middle of a Special Conservation Area but two nuclear power stations [photo]? Dungeness A is the old Magnox reactor, brought online in 1965 but switched off last New Year's Eve and now undergoing 105 years ofdecomissioning. Let's hope that global warming doesn't drown the site first. Meanwhile Dungeness B opened for business in 1983 and isn't due to be switched off until 2018. Which isn't long, really, given how long the site will remain unusable afterwards. In the meantime you can come down to Dungeness and picnic right outside the security fence, or walk along the high shingle ridge between the reactors and the sea [photo], or just go for a swim in the discharge outfall and see what happens. But, should the sirens ever sound and you need to make a swift exit, remember that the miniature trains from the nearby station have a maximum speed of only 25mph. Keep your fingers crossed.
Dungeness Lighthouses: If you're sailing a boat along the English Channel, this is one headland you'll want to avoid. There have been at least five lighthouses here over the last 400 years [photo], shifting ever further seaward as the shingle bank has increased in size. The circular living quarters around the base of the 1792 lighthouse survive, and are currently up for sale for a mere £1½ million [photo]. Beside this stands a 1904 replacement, rising 41 metres above the shingle, and this is now open to the public. 169 steps curl precipitously around the inside of the tower, up to a viewing platform around the mighty lamp from which there are the most magnificentviews in all directions. You can gaze inland across the unrelenting flatness of Romney Marsh [photo], or stare out to sea, or maybe catch sight of a rising cloud of steam billowing up from the next approaching steam train. It's also possible to look down onto the neighbouring power station... [photo] although the power station turned out to be a problem once built because ships approaching from the west were unable to see the lighthouse any more. So Trinity House built a new tower, tall and slender and rather closer to the coastline, which still belts out light in the general direction of France.
Prospect Cottage: This black-timbered former fisherman's cottage [photo] is famous as the former home of film director Derek Jarman. He was drawn to this desolate nuclear headland by its isolation, and used the surrounding area as the setting for his film The Last of England. After being diagnosed HIV-positive in the late 80s, Derek set about creating a garden amongst the shingle, and succeeded in creating an enchanting soil-free environment. The garden survived his death in 1994, and visitors can still trample (carefully) around it today. Just don't go up to the window and stare into the cottage - the current owner doesn't appreciate that. Sticks and stumps and rusty metal structures rise up from the stones [photo], like an enormous random rockery. The front garden is a little more formal [photo], the back garden rather less so [photo]. The vegetation is a riot of colour in early summer - an oasis in a gravel desert - but even in midwinter this garden stands out as something very different, something very special.