Monday, January 18, 2010


On Saturday - a very dark, wet, leaden Saturday - we drove to Dungeness from Rye. The contrast couldn't have been starker. Rye is the destination of choice for tourists in search of cobbled streets, cake shops and windows full of antiques - a picturesque former coastal town which, over the years, has steadily receded away from the sea. Dungeness is a coastal headland, a dumping-ground for shingle, and home to two of Britain's biggest nuclear power-stations.

DV thought it felt like a border-town, a wild, dangerous place whose inhabitants carry shotguns and hold up unsuspecting drivers. The village of Dungeness, such that it is, is composed of shacks, prefabs, huts and a few brick houses, strewn randomly across the spit, each one apparently as far away as possible from its neighbour. There are two pubs, a couple of shops battered by the salt air, two lighthouses (once there were five), a railway and - of course - those two gigantic reactors.

And she's right - it does feel like a border town. But a border between where and where? Between the East Sussex coast and the sea I suppose, but it's more otherwordly than that, like a non-place, somewhere extraterrestrial like an Yves Tanguy landscape. Both spatially and temporally, one feels like one is about to step off the end of the world.

But for all this, Dungeness has become a peculiarly desirable residence. Houses and shacks sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds; it is a haunt for the bohemians in nearby Hastings. Derek Jarman once owned a house here - a tidy little place made of jet-black timber with bright-yellow window-frames - and his serene garden is still open to the public.

Not much else in Dungeness feels public, or in any way hospitable. Tours around the power stations - only one of which now generates power - have been stopped for security reasons, and ecologists fear that the unique ecosystem which is a result of the by-products of nuclear power (rare birds thrive in the warm waters that are pumped into the sea from Dungeness B, and a third of all the species of plant native to Britain can be found on the headland) will be washed away by climate change, including the stations themselves.

The sound mirrors built at Greatstone, just along the coast, to detect First World War airplanes before the days of radar can also no longer be visited, except by arrangement. Designed to pick up and absorb sound waves from approaching aircraft, it was claimed that one could also hear trains leaving Paris if one stood close by. They have been saved - underpinned and repaired - by more than half a million pounds worth of investment from English Heritage and the local county and district Councils. But they are now stranded on an island, isolated by a man-made lagune, and are inaccessible to the trespasser. Nevertheless, they are beautiful and ghostly - relics of a science that has been consigned to history - and the match of anything to be found on my very favourite of Nesses.


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