Locals call it a separate continent. Romney Marsh, a stretch of fin-shaped land that protrudes into the English Channel, looks different to the rest of the country for two main reasons. First, it is flat. The pastures look ironed for miles and are devoid of the hedgerows and stone walls that usually divvy up the British countryside. Second, the skies take up an extraordinary amount of the view. ‘Romney Marsh, where the roads wind like streams through pasture and the sky is always three-quarters of the landscape,’ wrote poet John Betjeman. These are the kind of skies in which you can see rain approaching from miles away. The kind where you could hope to see tomorrow’s weather.
‘Romney Marsh looks different because around 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age, this whole area would have been under water,’ says Caroline Millar, author of this Discovering Britain trail. ‘Over time, sand and shingle deposited by the waves formed islands and spits of land. A barrier of shingle built up between Dymchurch and Dungeness creating lagoons and then saltmarsh.’
This route explores the southernmost tip of the marshland – Dungeness, which was built on some of the most changeable land in Britain. Its unusual character becomes apparent during the drive in. The road narrows and passes through a loose bunch of houses facing the sea. They are pieced together with clapboard and are square and wooden like the buildings of an old frontier town. Bikers rattle through slowly, visors up to take in the view, but the real Lone Rangers here are the photographers, lenses at their hips, trudging along the tarmac. The road leads to a five-story lighthouse which would be the main icon of the landscape if it weren’t for the monolithic nuclear power station behind it. In the car, the radio dissolves into static and muffled French. Calais is closer than London, but everything feels far away from Dungeness.
The walk begins at the Old Lighthouse. Dungeness means ‘dangerous nose’, a reference to the way the land juts into the channel. It used to need a lighthouse to prevent ships from wrecking on the shingle. Though this one is dubbed ‘old’, there have been four lighthouses before it, including two coal-and-candle fired beacons in the 1600s and a whale oil lamp in the 1700s. Each of them was placed in a different area of the beach and from the top of the Old Lighthouse it is possible to see why. The land is striated with long, dark lines, as though the headland has been roughly sketched over and over with the cusp further out to sea each time. ‘It’s longshore drift,’ says Millar. ‘The shingle moves from west to east over time, extending the length of the beach in the process.’ As the nose stretched into the channel, each lighthouse became misleading and a new one was required. The newest beacon was built in the 1960s and is 500 metres further east.
The sketchy lines are a unique feature in themselves: ‘They are 600 shingle ridges, which make up the largest shingle beach in Europe,’ Millar says. If longshore drift were an artist, Dungeness would be its masterstroke.
The drift causes trouble for a building much harder to relocate than the old beacons – the power station. By walking from the lighthouse and south along the road, it’s easier to appreciate the full size of the plant. It seems to take up the entire west side of the horizon – ‘which is an issue if the land constantly wants to move eastwards,’ says Millar. To counter the process, the site commissions thousands of tonnes of shingle to be returned to the site via dumper truck. ‘They pick up the rocks on the east side and dump them next to the power station, over and over,’ says Millar. ‘On some days local traffic can be backed up by the dozens of trucks going back and forth.’
A thin boardwalk crosses the shingle ridges to the water. The sea provides an explanation as to why the plant was built here despite the temperamental nature of the beach. ‘Nuclear power stations need massive amounts of water for cooling the reactors,’ says Millar. It’s a two-way system, however. Where the boardwalk ends it’s possible to see the churning area of water where the effluent returns to the sea. It is nicknamed ‘the boil’ by locals, or ‘the patch’ by anglers, who say it attracts fish and seabirds. From this position it’s also easier to see that the site is made up of two power stations. Dungeness A was commissioned in 1965 but came off the grid in 2006. Dungeness B came fully online in 1985. ‘Some people are drawn to them while others think they’re horrific, it just depends who you ask,’ says Millar. From here, the station is oddly beautiful, the inner lights glowing sherbet pink, green and orange and the outer panels giving off a pearl reflection of the sun.
The trail returns to the road. It allows a tour of the shacks of Dungeness. They are small, mostly one-story bungalows scattered along the road. Most don’t have delineated gardens and none have lawns, instead their front doors open straight out onto the stones. ‘Lots of them were built by working class Londoners in the 1920s and 1930s when there were few restrictions over where and how,’ says Millar. Among the most iconic are converted railway carriages. Until 1957 a train service operated here. After that the locals dragged the disused rolling stock to the beach and started living in them. Local artists continue the makeshift spirit, their cottage studios given added flourish by colourful sea detritus. The most famous cottage once belonged to the late artist, filmmaker and gay rights activist, Derek Jarman. His garden, planted with sea and sun-loving plants, continues to attract fans year-round. Other shacks attract pilgrims of a different kind. Loyal customers buy fish from a cargo container on the beach – fresh or with chips. It’s run by one of a handful of fishing families that still work and live on the headland. Nearby, the beach is strewn with catamarans, winches, tubs and floss-thin nets. ‘This is a working site,’ reads a sign aimed at those wandering photographers, imploring them not to tamper with the organised mess.
There is a persistent myth that Dungeness is Britain’s only desert, owing to low annual rainfall and poor soils. Though not technically a desert (it gets enough rainfall) the land does feel like a wilderness. The trail turns inland towards the shingle expanse, where teams of starlings waft near the ground and wiry rabbits dart under scrub. Further inland, there are freshwater ponds – the remains of extensive gravel pits – that attract rare birds and insects. The place feels wild but also heavily industrialised, a fusion set to continue for some time to come. In 2015, Dungeness B had its life extended for another decade. In the same year, the plant’s operator, EDF Energy, bought most of the cottage estate and headland with the aim of preserving the conservation area.
Walking back in the direction of the Old Lighthouse, the nuclear station now emits a dull hum. In the lower light it has turned a hazier shade, looking like a distant mountain. Nearby, children ride the miniature steam train that winds through the hamlet of shacks. It feels as though Dungeness has taken everything about the British seaside town and changed it. Except perhaps for the fish and chips.
This was published in the October 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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