8 August 2010
If you’ve never been to Dungeness nothing can really prepare you for the landscape. As far as I can work out the name derives from the Old Norse where ‘nes’ means nose, with, in this case, the nose attached to Denge Marsh. Others say it’s a derivation of the French for dangerous nose. Wherever the name comes from, Dungeness is a cuspate foreland – one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world – on the coast of Kent. This headland shelters the low lying land of Romney Marsh and is a haven for diverse wildlife and rare plants. Oh yeah and it’s got a nuclear power station as well.
It’s just under 100 miles away from London and this makes its bleak and desolate landscape seem all the more bleak and desolate. (Trees are a distinct rarity down here.) But that’s OK ‘cos I quite like bleak and desolate landscapes and I’m very fond of Dungeness. As well as the shingle, rare plants, exotic wildlife and power station there’s a functioning 15 gauge railway line that runs from Hythe to Dungeness. Completed in 1928 the nearly 14 miles of track owed much to the vision of two men; Captain J. E. P. Howey — a sometimes racing driver, millionaire land owner, former Army Officer and miniature railway afficionado along with Count Louis Zborowski — a well-known racing driver of his day (famous for owning and racing the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Mercedes) and considerably richer, even, than Howey. I’m fairly indifferent to this sort of thing but the steam and transport buffs I know get very excited about it and consider it one of the railway wonders of the world.
The RSPB has a bird sanctuary nearby and every year thousands of bird watchers flock (see what I did there) to record sightings of the different birds that live here or who are stopping over while they migrate. In May this year a pair of purple herons nested in the UK for the first time ever at Dungeness and successfully reared two chicks. Purple herons are high up on the list of birds that the RSPB expect to see setting up home in southern Britain as the changing climate pushes them further north. I’m certainly not indifferent to this sort of thing at all and I think the reserve is a great place to spend a coupla hours even if you know nothing about birds.
Close by is sleepy little Lydd Airport from which about 4,000 people fly to and from annually. The owners have renamed the enterprise London Ashford airport. I don’t think even Ryanair fly into places 100 miles from the supposed destination. The grandiose scheme attached to this rename plans to increase the number of passengers to 500,000. This is just plane stupid. If you ask me the south east doesn’t really need any more airports. One here would destroy the natural tranquillity of Dungeness and could see its remarkable wildlife slowly disappear, poisoned by increased levels of pollution or simply driven out by the massive disturbance that such a large airport would cause.
In the later years of his life Derek Jarman had a cottage here, which is remembered for his famous shingle cottage-garden. The house was built in tarred timber and has a raised wooden text on the side of the cottage quoting the first stanza and the last five lines of the final stanza of John Donne‘s poem, The Sun Rising. The cottage’s beach garden was made using local materials and has been the subject of several books. But despite taking a look at all this what we are really here to do today is to take a guided tour of the Sound Mirrors at Lade.
These other worldy concrete structures are the remains of part of an acoustic early warning system that was designed to detect engine sounds from approaching aircraft. ‘Staccato signals of constant information‘ as Paul Simon sings from another time. The ones here and just up the coast at Hythe were part of an intended chain defending the south east. The Romney Marsh Countryside Partnership along with the author of Echoes in the Sky, Dr Richard Scarth, have been leading free, non-booking, guided walks out to the Sound Mirrors for over 11 years now. And bloody good they are too. On the site, owned by CEMEX, there is a 20 foot mirror, a 30 foot mirror and a 200 foot wall. Despite being constructed between 1928 and 1930 all are on the Scheduled Ancient Monuments list.
The walk we were on was extremely popular – I stopped estimating at 150 – and extremely well led. (Our guide was featured on the BBC’s Secret Britain series when they covered the medicinal leeches of Dungeness. See I told you the wildlife was exotic). The advent of radar, in 1934, cast this experiment onto the quirky historical scrapheap fairly rapidly and as far as I can work out they were only used in the Air Defence of Great Britain Exercises in the 1930’s. They’re well worth preserving though and fit in very well with all the other outlandish sights to be seen at Dungeness.