The day had been beautiful and I had missed most of it for one reason or another and, so, I set out in the car with no real plan as to where I was going. After an amount of driving aimlessly around in the High Weald (which is no bad way to spend an afternoon in any case) I found myself dropping down to the great expanse of Romney Marsh. Realising I was in Kent I, of course, first locked all of my doors before deciding to head for the coast. It was a good few years since I’d last been to Dungeness and as there really is nowhere quite like it, I thought it was about time for a revisit. There is, in England, nowhere quite as atmospheric and downright strange to walk as Dungeness. So much so that I am even prepared to travel to Kent to see it.
There is, to me anyway, something wonderfully romantic and beguiling about the relationship between Dungeness, Romney Marsh and the High Weald. The headland of Dungeness itself, of course, didn’t even exist when the Romans first came to our shores, but gradually, over the centuries, a shingle spit built up. This spit both protected the waters behind it and caused the silt washed down the rivers to build up on the seabed, thus creating what later became the Walland and Romney Marshes. The shingle spit itself grew so large that towns were built on it. Lydd is still much where it was first built, but the once-bustling port of Winchelsea was eventually washed away and re-founded on the hill where it sits to this day by Edward I.
There is something that really captures my imagination about the idea of all these soils being washed down the rivers and creating more land when they reach the coast. Of course, the land was artificially drained to create the large, flat fields we see today, but without the action of the Rother and the Brede, the Tillingham and Pannel and all those beautiful little rivers that rush between the hills in the High Weald, like the Dudwell and the Tidebrook, neither the marshes nor Rye Bay would exist. Without the protected waters known as La Chambre (Camber), the towns of Romney, Rye and Winchelsea would never have grown up to become the important medieval ports they became.
But just as the silts from the rivers were essential, so was this mysterious shingle spit that stopped the silt from being washed away by the sea. Why it grew where it did, no-one can precisely say, but it seems to be that this is a point where two processes of longshore drift meet. One washing from west to east along the English Channel and the other coming down along the North Sea coast and through the Straits of Dover. The meeting of the currents washes the two great masses of shingle together until they are enough to rise above the waves, where the first hardy plants manage to find a foothold among the unforgiving stones. Gradually, as they die, their decaying leaves help to make soil among the pebbles, and their water-questing roots help hold it in place. Over many long years this may one day become “normal” land, but for now the life of Dungeness is measured in hundreds of years, not the thousands needed, and it remains a bleak, mostly treeless place.
Having said that, though, the area teems with life. There is often a huge amount of variety in an area’s flora if no big plants, like trees or even taller grasses, can grow up and shade the other plants out and Dungeness is home to around 600 different plant varieties. Many of the insects, moths, beetles and spiders that live among them are extremely rare. Some of them are only found here and nowhere else in Britain. With the insects to feed on and the large lagoons of both brackish and fresh water, this is a hugely important place for migrating birds and the RSPB has a large reserve here.
But, of course, it is not just the geology or the ecology that make Dungeness what it is. Humans, too, have made an enormous impact. The nuclear power station cannot be avoided and it sits in its supreme, vast, jarring ugliness on the edge of the shingle and even in the fog of the day I visited its presence is always felt – looming darkly in the mists and sending an eerie hum out into the air, to mingle with the electronic tones sent out by the foghorn in the latest of the five lighthouses that have been built here over the years.
And just to add to the incongruity, around the power station, along the straggling road, are sheds and huts. Homes built of wood and plastic and old, upturned boats. The whole place has a feeling of impermanence: that the plants could be blown away by a strong enough wind or the shingle itself reclaimed by the sea at any moment, and these rambling, wooden buildings can only contribute to that feeling. This is a place between places. A place between the land and the sea. A place that is so surreal, it could almost not be real at all.
Yes, the day had been – and remained – beautiful inland, but as I approached the coast I began to see what looked like a line of clouds on the horizon. By the time I drove down the tiny road towards the power station, I was enveloped in fog. I almost considered not walking, but I pushed myself out of the car and was more than glad that I did. The power station could not be seen from where I parked near the new lighthouse, but after a short walk along the beach, it began to reveal itself to me, albeit never fully. I walked beside the great, murmuring beast and then took off inland across the shingle and through thickets of scrub – the trees are slowly coming here. One day this would all be forest if left to its own devices.
As I walked, the sun gradually began to make itself felt through the thinning cloud, at first just lighting up small patches of shingle here and there. Despite the low light, this secret, lost world around me was full of colour. Blood-red poppies and startling blue viper’s bugloss surrounded me and when the sun made it through the drifting mists, the June grasses glowed golden in great strips along the ridges of shingle, formed hundreds of years ago by the waves when these ridges were at the very water’s edge.
Further and further I walked, each step on the shingle an effort and eventually I could see a long line of bright light along the horizon, growing wider and wider the nearer I came. I could see a domed building that the map said was a reservoir and beside it a tower. Something to do with nearby Lydd Airport? By the time I had reached them I was walking in full sunlight and the world seemed normal. I walked between large lagoons and watched the swans and ducks that swam on them and as I headed back towards the car, the mist closed once more above my head as the golden sun set behind me.