Leave your Soul by The Sea at Dungeness

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I left my soul there / Down by the sea / I lost control here / Living free – Morcheeba, The Sea

I think anyone who has visited Dungeness will attest to the fact it is a strange and often eerie place. A vast network of barren flatlands, it is home to a host of wildlife, some alien-looking concrete sculptures, a thankfully underrated and thus often deserted beautiful beach, and a much loved, rideable little steam train which has filled the dreams of many a Kentish child.

On visiting the area, one is struck immediately by the landscape. The gleaming green wetlands of an RSPB nature reserve contrast, in a bittersweet thrill, with the deserted expanse which runs along the seafront; startling red rusting machinery and crumbling fisherman’s shacks dot the horizon. The effect is very much ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘ and its power hinges partly on the same provocation of human emotion which made successful that infamous film – the exposure. The vulnerable haunting nature of a sparsely populated area. A lack of shelter, a lack of shade. Nowhere to hide, no-one to help. Of course at Dungeness there are plenty of houses, but certain areas of the front are almost entirely empty. A few architects and design gurus have taken the opportunity to build experimental structures, which sit upon the plains like spaceships landed on an African peninsula.

A trip up the lighthouse allows you to survey this scene in all its glory, the mini steamtrain line on its perpetual circuit, the endless patches of reds and browns interspersed with grey waves of shingle and sprinkles of green, the open ground scorched from the all-seeing sun in tandem with the assisting sea breeze.

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An exploratory walk North-West leads you over this dusty earth and through to the nature reserve where upon the horizon great blue lakes appear, quenching the entire landscape. The air becomes fresher, the wildlife more prolific and an abundance of beautiful birds showcase the best of nature’s design and make you remember why the RSPB are so important.

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Emerging from this bliss and turning North-East will lead you straight to the ‘Acoustic Mirrors’. Set amongst the lush vegetation and straddling an impressive lake, these striking concrete structures were erected around the time of the second world war. Dungeness, the only part of Britain classified as desert by the Met office, seemed a perfect spot to erect these objects, relying as they did on quiet surroundings to pick up the noise of approaching enemy planes. The acoustic mirrors, or ‘listening ears’ as they were known, were an early exploration into the principles of radar, their use discontinued once new technological advancements surpassed their capability. They are now of historical interest and it is possible to cross the water to walk around them.

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And besides all this you still have the glistening beach, shrouded with an ominous rising steamy mist at low tide on a hot day and thanks to the proximity of local favorite camber sands, used mainly by locals, with a few scattered tourists.

In all, the place is, well, strange. The first time, a bit too strange. But the second time. The second time I fell in love. See you soon Dungeness x

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Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

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Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

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Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

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Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

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All photographs Kate Withstandley except those specified

4 comments
  1. Jeff said:

    It all looks like an outdoor sculpture park. I can’t help but wonder where the property boundaries lie on the land surrounding the houses? Can passersby roam freely around those populated areas?

    • Oh yes, it’s all very open. Of the showcase houses, you have ‘Shingle House’ http://www.living-architecture.co.uk/the-houses/shingle-house/overview/ which can be rented out and as a passer by you can go right up to it, there is no land boundary. Also Derek Jarman’s former house and others which have been created from recycled materials. All are very open, but like this lady says in her blog (which gives a bit of extra detail about the ‘alternative living’ there) http://www.carjet.com/blog/other-wordly-and-beautiful-dungeness, they are people’s houses so probably polite not to go and look in the windows! I’ve added a couple more pics to show the houses and shacks on the shingle seafront. Thanks for the comment, and for reading 🙂

      • Jeff said:

        Quite like your pictures that show the human scale. They give a sense of the place’s usage and meaning to people. I can see its appeal for gallery-goers. Living in a holiday area myself, I wonder what it’s like when the wind whips up and the rain lashes down?
        I’ve a feeling that I’ve seen a TV doc about Dungeness. Looks from the satellite images as though the scarring of the dunes might have been caused by the construction of the power station and other larger features. On my visiting list for any future visits to the South. Thanks for the post.

  2. I thought that myself when I was down there, lovely in summer, but probably rather desolate in winter! Not sure I would want to live there permanently, both times I’ve been down it was scorching, which was perfect really. It’s such a strange landscape, apparently the largest expanse of shingle in Europe, built up over thousands of years of the sea bringing it to land. The sea is continuously moving the shingle around (NE so says Wikipedia) so it requires constant redistribution of the shingle to ensure the safety of the area, including the power stations. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungeness_Nuclear_Power_Station. There is more here: http://www.geography.dur.ac.uk/information/staff/personal/long/Dungeness.pdf – fascinating, and definitely a must-visit. Let me know what you think when you do!

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