Dungeness is a landscape unlike any other in Britain. A protruding headland made almost entirely of shingle; coastal processes have built a historic hamlet. French etymology translates the name as ‘dangerous nose’. The prominent jut into the English Channel resembles sharp human features. Though disputed, many consider Dungeness to be the UK’s only desert.
A sparse and unassuming landscape, Dungeness is a site of international conservation importance. Plant and bird life thrives due to the status of the headland as a place of significant scientific interest. Such is the importance of the shingle that many of the invertebrate species that inhabit it are not found elsewhere in Britain. An example of which is the short haired bumblebee, a creature whose numbers dwindled to extinction levels in the 1980s. After successful preservation in New Zealand, the species was successfully returned to UK shores via Dungeness.
The natural world is juxtaposed against a man-made colossus. Dungeness (A & B) nuclear power stations lie on the shoreline, spewing their wastewater into the sea. Their presence within a wildlife sanctuary is seemingly necessary; symbiosis has been established, with the warmer waters sustaining a unique ecosystem of marine life. Site A was decommissioned in 2006, whilst site B will be retired in 2028. Further sites were planned, but Dungeness was not on the shortlist for consideration and will ultimately be closed. The demolition of the site is not planned until the end of the 21st century; after the removal of Dungeness A & B, the man-made shingle defences will not be maintained, allowing the erosion of the coastline to consume the former site. The landscape of the prominent headland will once again be susceptible to tidal processes.
Homes here are largely made of wood, though neighbouring abodes vary significantly with the modern influx of architecturally innovative redevelopments. Beaten by the sea air, facades splintering, the older wooden homes are a glimpse into the history of Dungeness. The solitude provided by this landscape attracts creatives, artists and musicians seeking the sanctuary of quiet isolation. The most famous of them was Derek Jarman, whose Prospect Cottage is a recognisable monument on the shoreline. In his memory, it stands as a lasting tribute to the tenets of Jarman’s life, the pursuit of gay rights and fight for sufferers of HIV. His time in Dungeness was set against the decline of his health; Jarman’s garden was maintained and manicured, remaining so in the years since the death of himself and his partner. The struggle to nurture his wildflower habitat in the midst of a ravaging illness was documented in his collaborative book, Modern Nature.
The garden was a refuge that gifted Jarman with silence. Many followers of the artist make a pilgrimage to his cottage, perhaps seeking the experience of solitude and calm offered on the shingle. Paul Copson, a Dungeness native and former lighthouse operative on the Isle of Portland, befriended Derek Jarman late in life. He fondly recounts his memories of a ‘magical, warm and encouraging person, the angry activist and the gentle warm natured gardener’. Having consumed Modern Nature, Paul felt compelled to compliment the author and detailed his experiences of Dungeness. Prospect Cottage, he said, was once home to a local character called Char Richardson. Derek was seemingly touched and replied to Paul, the envelope simply saying ‘Paul, Lighthouse, Portland’. The two became firm friends for over 25 years. Recent fundraising efforts have saved Prospect Cottage from an uncertain future.
Other homes in the area attract less fanfare, but share many characteristics. The estate of Dungeness has had many different owners. Once in the hands of the Southern Railway, it was bought by EDF Energy (owners of the nuclear power station) in 2017. Each of the approximate 80 dwellings would have once been home to local fisherman and their families. These families were resilient against the struggle of living on the headland. A community spirit pervaded, as amenities such as running water and sewage systems were non-existent.
The location of Dungeness, on one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, prior to the creation of shipping lanes and modern navigational systems, established an outward facing community. As the sole residents of the Dungeness estate, it was once the responsibility of the community to launch the lifeboat. An arduous task that involved the carrying of ‘woods’ that were over 8 feet in length, safe launching of the boat fell to the women. The men aboard the boat could not risk being exposed to the water. The ‘Lady Launchers’ and wives of the crew would at times carry the men to the boats, so great was the risk of being exposed to water in the winter months. Their duties lasted for decades until the 1950s, when American surplus vehicles were used in their place. Today, the lifeboat is launched into and retrieved from the waters by a specialist vehicle.
Dungeness’ Lady Launchers played their role in the initial launching of ‘Operation Dynamo’ in 1940. Dungeness Lifeboat RNLB Charles Cooper Henderson was one of 19 RNLI lifeboats which served in World War II. Between 27th of May and 4th June, over 338,000 Allied Soldiers were saved from the harbour and beaches of Dunkirk. Crewed by Royal Navy seamen, the small boat from Dungeness rescued more than 2,000 soldiers who were then deposited onto larger vessels in the Channel.
The military significance of Dungeness, as a site for training and defence, has been long standing. The ‘Listening Ears’, three acoustic mirrors that are formed from concrete, are a reminder of the threat of aerial invasion during World War II. As one of the quietest places in Britain, Dungeness was selected as the ideal location for the site. The mirrors could focus sound waves, helping to identify Luftwaffe attacks prior to them reaching the shore. They now stand derelict, a visible relic of the headland’s history and importance.
The old wooden boats, historic fishing vessels, lay washed up and abandoned on the shingle; fishing had once been a vital local economy. The influence of this industry can be seen in the landscape today. From bait digging and shrimping to fishing for mackerel and herring, there is a long tradition linked to the sea economy. Progradation of the shingle beaches attracted more boats to the area. The symbiosis between the warm waters and marine life today is interrupted by fishermen, who have dwindled in number over the past 40 years. The local catch was loved by Jarman, who claimed that the local Pilot Inn lay claim to ‘simply the finest fish and chips in England’.
Herring fishing, a practice traceable to the medieval period, once formed a sizeable proportion of the local economy. Across the landscape stands remnants of this popular practice; ‘herring hangs’, towers for the smoking of fish, lay unused on the beach of Dungeness today. The practice was significant enough to justify a railway service, direct from the shingle of Dungeness to Billingsgate Fish Market. The forgotten tracks are still visible today. A selection of homes at Dungeness are old railway carriages, repurposed by the community to accommodate the needs of local people during the 20th century.
The dangerous nose, protruding into the channel, has changed immeasurably over the past 100 years. Strong community cohesion has dwindled with a rise in second home ownership, with Dungeness becoming increasingly desirable for wealthy holiday makers. Generational lineage that was once attached to the headland through a distinguished fishing industry has waned, with local harbours and technological advancement making once popular practices redundant. It is with thanks to ancient technologies, Roman sea defences built at Dymchurch, that the ecological wonder of Dungeness still exists today. The future of the estate will be preserved by the continuation of man-made coastal processes, though the risks to those who live in the wider salt marsh area could be profound.