Now, with the promise of autumn in the air, it feels almost nostalgic to look back on those hot days of just two months ago: the end of July, record temperatures; the countryside baked and arid. A visit then, to Dungeness on the Kent coast, a headland jutting out to sea just to the east of the Sussex border. One of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, it is a fabled place. Hitherto unknown, my only reference points are those places closer to home like Norfolk’s Blakeney Point and Suffolk’s Sizewell and Orford Ness where, until recently at least, there was a lighthouse. Dungeness, I learn, has two – an old and a new; like Sizewell, there is a nuclear power station. Like both, there is shingle galore.
The modern mythology of Dungeness precedes it. Much of it is connected with the filmmaker Derek Jarman, who lived here in a fisherman’s cottage in the 1990s. We arrived on what was predicted to be the hottest day on record and stayed overnight at a B&B on the coast road at nearby Lydd-on-Sea. The shelved beach was entirely of pebbles, nearly all flint, most of which were black although some were a warm shade of amber. I clambered awkwardly across loose, sun-blasted stones to take a swim, glad of the water’s relative coolness. The sea was tepid mulligatawny, warmed by the incoming tide flowing over hot pebbles. Across the bay lay the white low-rise of Folkestone, and beyond this Dover’s celebrated cliffs. Later, when the air cleared a little, we could see Boulogne gleaming across the Channel. Boulogne-sur-Mer: another country, closer here than even the horizon, although we, as a nation, were allowing it to drift from view. The water, the English Channel, had become both a salty barrier that kept us apart us as well as a fluid channel that connected us. The French, always better dressed, call it La Manche, ‘the sleeve’. Language has its own agenda; language slips from tongues and connives to confuse – La Manche: c’est la mer. La Manche: c’est le mur. La France: c’est l’amour.
The next day really was the hottest day on record. We drove to Dungeness to find Jarman’s house. Prospect Cottage, black-painted wood with bright yellow window frames, looked to be in excellent condition. The cottage was close enough to Dungeness Power Station to be within the acoustic shadow of the menacing clang and whir of its machinery. The garden was clearly a work of love, a metaphor for Jarman’s dwindling years, an exercise in making the most of limitations: a temple to pebbles and the salt-tolerant flora that would grow in their presence – sea kale, yellow-horned poppy, red valerian, fennel and clumps of tough spiky grasses. Beach debris, like sea-bleached driftwood, provided makeshift statuary, while circles of larger pebbles were arranged like henges. Unlike most gardens it seemed an extension of the landscape rather than any sort of imposition on it. Here on a bleak shingle spit, framed by the terrifying machinery of nuclear fusion, was, as the title of Jarman’s book suggests, modern nature.
We drove on past the red and white banded new lighthouse to a pub close to the old lighthouse and the power station – the Britannia Inn (‘Fish & Chips, Pizza’), which had trestle tables lined up outside in its car park that afforded unbroken views to the concrete edifices of Dungeness B. It was hard to imagine something that could simultaneously be both so English and so weirdly incongruous. Signs in the shingle across the road warned of the necessity of a licence for filming and photography in specific areas. Like Orford Ness in Suffolk, Dungeness has become a brand with associated commercial interests. Membership cards of any psychogeographic-inclined affiliation were invalid here.
A boardwalk led across the shingle to a bench. Coming along it back towards the road were two policeman carrying binoculars. We had already noticed a large police presence in the area – patrol cars, transit vans with anti-riot shields poised above windscreen. At first, perhaps naively, I had thought it was a matter of security – keeping an eye on the power station, an obvious if not particularly vulnerable target for would-be terrorists. Then it dawned that they were here to watch the sea for migrant rafts. France was at its closest here and the English Channel was about as calm as it ever gets. It was high season for people smuggling.
Some of the houses that lined Marine Drive in Lydd had first floor balconies that looked out to sea. A few had flagpoles with flapping St George or Union flags. Here at England’s south-eastern edge, the Continental ‘other’ in plain view, expressions of nationalism appeared to be defiant and full-throated. I wondered what sort of welcome any raft voyager who successfully beached here would receive from those who had seen them approach through the telescope mounted on their verandas. Somehow I doubted that many would have the kettle boiling and the Hobnobs ready on a plate.
Dungeness’s watchfulness is nothing new. In the heat of the first afternoon I had taken a walk to see the Denge sound mirrors located on an island in what had recently been designated an RSPB reserve. Now designated Scheduled Ancient Monuments, the sound mirrors, constructed of concrete in three radically different designs, were built between 1928—1935 and were an intriguing precursor to the invention of radar just before World War II. Strange objects to find in any landscape let along here among the shingle and marshes of the West Kent littoral, the idea was that they would detect the sound coming emanated by low-flying enemy aircraft coming across the channel – an early warning system of ‘Listening Ears’ as they became known.
It was a historical fact, dictated by location and landscape, that Dungeness had long been keeping its ears and eyes open to intruders from across the sea. If such liminal places were ever to participate in a twinning scheme then Orford Ness in Suffolk, with its secret bomb testing facilities and comparable edge of the world atmosphere, would be a natural contender. Both Dungeness and Orford Ness watch and listen as the flint pebbles grind and roll on their beaches in ever-shifting Heraclitean flux. Panta rhei: ever moving, never the same, always the same.