Friday, 20 January 2012


Miniature railway, lighthouses, shingle - Dungeness!
In the autumn I enjoyed a whistlestop tour around Rye and environs, a part of the world I knew well from the work of artists I love but hadn't visited in years. The place I had heard most about was undoubtedly Dungeness, that great parson's nose of shingle jutting out from the flat Kent coast a few miles south of the hilltop town.

Actually I read about it first, in Derek Jarman's wonderful, elegiac book 'Modern Nature'. This must have been twenty years ago, but both the tone of the book and the descriptions of the film-maker's strange, stony garden stayed with me. A dying man attempting to tease life out of salt-encrusted shingle, in the shadow of a nuclear power station? I didn't like his films, particularly, but this was a wonderful tale.

Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman's former home (private - please respect)
Other stories about Dungeness reached me over the subsequent years. I remember the sound of feet scrunching over shingle in a Radio 4 documentary, a programme which left with me an image of stones lying in great undulating waves, so that when you stood in the midst of them you could see nothing else.

Then I came across the painting by Eric Ravilious that features in 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', which gives a completely different impression. His version is more like a scene from an old-fashioned Sci-fi movie, with improbable modern structures dotted around a desolate shore. Dungeness had been popular with artists since at least the mid-19th century, when dramatic scenes of ships in peril were so much in vogue. More recently, that intrepid travelling artist John Piper had made several lovely pictures of the lighthouse and attendant buildings, using his favoured media of pen and ink, gouache and collage. Ravilious may have seen these, which would partially explain his idiosyncratic choice of subject and angle.

Eric Ravilious, Dungeness, 1939, private collection/DACS
Anyway, one bright morning in September I set off from Rye. As I drove south the weather changed, the clouds not so much moving in as forming around me, and by the time I reached the deserted holiday camps and hotels of Camber Sands it was drizzling. The country beyond reminded me of Lincolnshire or the Baltic coast, but that was probably just the weather. To the right the land was fenced off, miles of it, and looking at the map afterwards I realised it was an army range. I drove through Lydd, read a report in a local paper that trumpeted the expansion of the local airport as the only hope for the local economy and lambasted the bird lovers of Dungeness for their opposition to the plans, and carried on.

Approaching my destination on a narrow lane it was clear that this was one of the world's stranger and more wonderful places. To the right the industrial bulk of not one, but two nuclear power stations. To the left, an evenly-spaced row of houses, each slightly different to its neighbour, which stretched away along the coast towards Dymchurch, as far as I could see. And all around, the most extraordinary landscape - a kind of miniature Lake District with hills ten feet high and no plant taller than a gorse bush.

As I got closer to the coast the vegetation grew sparser, the shingle more obvious, until I was driving along an even more makeshift road with the odd wooden chalet on one side and on the other a wave of stones that formed a crest above the shoreline. On this crest, outlined against the grey sky, brightly painted boats were perched ready for launching, while closer at hand lay the skeletons of older, abandoned boats with bleached and broken timbers. Among these were other relics - huts and bits of winding machinery, and long, snaking sections of narrow gauge railway track. Up ahead were the lighthouses and on my right, as I went slowly along, Prospect Cottage with its matt black walls and bright yellow trim, and the bizarre ornamental garden created by Derek Jarman in the last years of his life.

The Low Light, built C19, converted to foghorn station C20
Few places I've visited have such a powerful and unique identity as Dungeness and I could see instantly why Ravilious had felt at home. The lighthouses and miniature railway and power stations and eccentric little houses were part of it, but what appealed to me most was the evidence of passing time.

While the cliffs of Beachy Head, just along the coast, are constantly being worn away, the shingle bank is continually growing, and as the sea retreats so the fishermen and other inhabitants of this peculiar settlement follow it, leaving behind on the stones whatever they no longer need. Everywhere was evidence of past endeavours, although I found no trace of the lighthouse on which Ravilious focused his attention, the so-called Low Light installed in the 19th century to supplement the main lighthouse.

Prospect Cottage
What a place to create a garden in the face of death. What a place for a painter of everyday marvels. I can't wait to go back.

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is published by The Mainstone Press at the end of February.


  1. Stunning photography - the abandoned boat is very Ravilious! Great post.

  2. Wonderful. Thank you for this. What a powerful place.

  3. I find Dungeness a source of great inspiration.

  4. The Derek Jarman garden looks rather like a Zen garden. I wonder if he was influenced by Japanese garden design? There is something very spiritual about it.

  5. The garden is pretty eclectic... I bet if you had a look at 'Modern Nature' you could find out more about Jarman's inspirations. And it's a lovely book.

  6. I'm lucky enough to live in a village near Rye and I have to say that I've never in my life encountered anywhere with the atmosphere you find at Dungeness. It's totally unique and pretty indescribably - you really have to go there in person to understand and appreciate it.

  7. Anonymous14 May, 2013

    Dungeness is a great source of inspiration until it rains. Then you understand why few people choose to live out there.

  8. Dungeness is often at it's best in the rain. ... You can 'feel' why it draws the artist to it's soul. ... Discovered an ebook quite recently, called 'The Homing Instinct' by Andrew Benedict. The story is set mainly in and around Dungeness and Derek Jarman gets a mention although it's probably not his type of book.