Dungeness is strange and fascinating. I’d lived in Kent for a year or so before I went to Dungeness and at the time I’d expressed an interest in visiting after work one long summer evening. However, I’d been discouraged when I was told that there’s ‘nothing there.’ Now, having visited, that statement sort of reminds me of that scene in The Matrix where Neo and Morpheus are in the training zone, no walls and white space into the distance; but that’s the point of Dungeness, to me at least, because it is actually a bit like that.
There’s no getting away from the nuclear power station, a collection of great square buildings on the horizon visible from some miles away. You approach across this flat, would-be bleak, landscape surrounded on all sides by boundless sky. You really don’t have to go to Montana to see big skies, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Lincolnshire or Somerset, will all give you big skies and wide horizons and they all have their own character. Somerset is beautiful and, perhaps, the least spoiled, although the Yorkshire coastal lands north of the Humber Estuary seemed to have preserved themselves similarly from the ravages of industrial agribusiness. Lincolnshire seems to have surrendered, as I’m so fond of going on about. Cambridgeshire and Norfolk are part way between the two. All offer big skies though. Whether or not the landscape works seems to depend on leaving some landscape features in place. A few hedges and trees go a long way to make somewhere hospitable and, in a storm, you can pitch your tent in the lee of a good hedge. But the Dungeness Peninsula does big skies in a wild, wind bleached manner with mossy short grasses, and a preponderance of telegraph poles. Having said that the Dungeness Peninsula doesn’t really have any trees either, but it probably never had any. The fact that the landscape is in its original state is what seems to matter. That’s as original as an English landscape can be with 5000 years of agricultural land management. All landscapes are developed over time and the English countryside, the lowland landscape at least, has developed into the patchwork of fields and hedgerows that it’s famous for. Scotland has its mountains, glens and lochs. Wales has its mountains, lakes and valleys. England has its patchwork of fields.
As you approach Dungeness there is a turnoff from the main road that indicates that this is a private estate. Unsure if it was okay to continue, always feeling put off by signs of private ownership, I decided it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, besides there was nobody to ask so I drove on down the only road, becoming ever more lumpy, ever more patched, feeling ever more as though I shouldn’t be there, ever more grateful for the suspension on The Truck. Having left the more substantial buildings behind, low lying brick built houses and bungalows, I passed over the narrow gauge tracks of the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, at 15 inches wide seeming hardly sufficient to carry anything other than a toy train. I continued on along an ever more patched lane into a wilderness, increasing expanses of shingle as the vegetation struggled to keep a hold of the landscape. The grass that had been long and tussocky further inland was, here, shorter and stunted, giving way to open shingle with just a few plants clinging on in clusters.
The modern world has little place here other than when a huge industrial effort is taken, such as to build a nuclear power station and, even then, it seems to sit temporarily, incongruously, on the landscape rather than being embedded in it as so much of human influence is.
The place is as windswept as expected but what Dungeness lacks in trees it seems to make up for with telegraph poles. I don’t know if reclaimed marsh or shingle is unsuitable for burying cables or if someone generally thought that telegraph poles set off the big sky but, wherever you look across Dungeness, you seem to see telegraph poles. Somehow, though, they don’t spoil the view; they just seem to add to the bleakness of the place, skeletal poles with threadlike tendrils spreading out across the blue.
However, for all its apparent lack of hospitability, Dungeness is not deserted. Right out on the headland there are small buildings everywhere, single story shacks, presumably the shifting shingle does not support foundations well, all bleached to grey by the incessant wind and sun. The road stretches ahead, patched and tattered, disappearing over the horizon which seems strangely close. But the land drops away into the shingle and, beyond that, into the sea so the road has that infinite into the distance impression that you might only expect to see in the deserts of the south west USA. Still this is said to be Britain’s only desert so perhaps it has something of the desolation of New Mexico.
All around are cabins and huts that look as though you might live in them if you were determined but you probably wouldn’t want to spend the winter here. Returning in the spring you’d not know what to expect. Some of the cabins are converted railway trucks, quite substantial and, you might expect, able to resist the most extreme of maritime conditions. Alongside many of the huts are all manner of boats, some of considerable size, equally weathered with much of their colour bleached out to look like that great black and white picture you always knew you could one day capture if you could just get the detail of the wood grain and a moody sky behind. Some of the boats look as though you’d be taking your life in your hands if you went to sea in them; some may have been beached for years. Apparently, though, there is a small fishing community here so I wonder how many of these craft go to sea more often than you might imagine. I wonder how people make a living from catching a few fish, though I suppose their needs are minimal. Others visit Dungeness at weekends and for holidays so, apparently, some of the cabins have become quite sought after and prices can be high so one wonders how long the community can survive.
Eventually there is the massive hulking presence of the power station that utterly dominates the landscape and gives the impression that you can go no further. I’m sure if I’d taken the time to explore, and didn’t have to return to see if my tent had blown away (which of course it never would as I’d learned being a Khyam they simply don’t do that but, hey, tent anxiety is irrational), I would have found a path around the perimeter but being a nuclear power station I felt that I was being watched by unseen people from a room filled with banks of screens that scour every inch of the windswept landscape.
Just as you arrive at the power station (though you might be half a mile away such is its size) is a scattered cluster of buildings and two lighthouses, one built at the turn of the twentieth century but made obsolete when someone realised that the new power station blocked the view of its light. I don’t know if that’s actually true but it’s a nice idea. Somehow stories of incompetence seem to make the world a more meaningful place.
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It strikes me that humans need to have their cake and eat it, in a sort of contradictory two-worlds sort of way. We seem naturally driven by the oblivious structure of associations that populate our unconscious mind and cause us to mess up our golf swing, meanwhile we attempt to create an understanding of the world with causality and rationalism that just doesn’t fit with our unconscious mind. The alternative is to live in a world of bleak rationalism that sucks the joy out of life, destroys the flavour that comes from all of the mistaken interpretations of human history, the myths and legends of our ancestors, the very things that fill our unconscious. The result of trying to live in both the realms of irrationality and the rational is the sort of incongruity that seems to parallel Dungeness Power Station plonked on the natural shingle peninsula. Trying to live a life where there is room for irrational beliefs yet remaining rational to the point that the laws of physics still prevail means that you have to ignore one or the other. But walking around Dungeness it’s almost possible to not notice the massive power station, it’s ever-present but if you can do the trick in your head it disappears from your attention and the headland becomes once more bleak, desolate and beautiful. Of course the power station doesn’t really disappear but you sort of only notice the stuff between you and it, unless you choose to focus on it but that’s a choice you make in Dungeness.
Extract from #InSatNavWeTrust – a search for meaning through the Historic Counties of England. Find out more here: http://jack-barrow.com/travelogue-in-satnav-we-trust/