Desolation and an unlikely art scene in Dungeness

Kent’s rain-lashed hinterland is an unlikely magnet for creatives and provides the backdrop for a thoroughly different UK weekend away.

Thursday, February 20, 2020,
By Henry Wilkins
Dungeness
While Dungeness is often misrepresented as Britain’s only desert, it’s actually a shingle headland, surrounded by the English Channel.
Photograph by Getty

As we clamber up the brow of the shingle bank, Dungeness’ nuclear power station emerges over the top, humming away gently. “I hardly notice it until it makes a noise,” says local artist Helen Gillian. “Sometimes, when it does pop it’s quite loud, but it’s only steam… I think it’s quite beautiful. Don’t you?”

The ability to find beauty in a nuclear power station (and ignore it when it emits an explosion) might reveal something about the kind of person who loves Dungeness. Like many others drawn to its stark, open landscapes, I’ve been coming here to escape London for years. Its slightly post-apocalyptic aura isn’t for everyone, though. Perhaps that’s why it flies below the radar as a place to visit for so many.

“Some people really don’t like it here; it hasn’t got any of the things they need from life, but there are so many people that do,” says Helen. She lives on the beach and works on her paintings from a studio in her garden. Browsing through Helen’s gallery in the timber hut next door, it’s obvious the focus of her work is Dungeness and its unique sense of place.

She’s not the only artist to have been lured here; the film director Derrick Jarman made his home here too. Musicians who’ve used it as a backdrop include Pink Floyd (album cover) and Nicki Minaj (music video). Even Banksy left his mark on one of the derelict fisherman’s sheds scattered along the beach.

It’s often misrepresented as Britain’s only desert, and it’s easy to see why — you could almost be in Arizona, except, instead of Joshua trees and agave there’s viper’s-bugloss and wild sea kale. Yet, being on the Kent coast less than two hours from London, it gets too much rain and lacks the extremity of temperatures necessary to qualify as a desert. It’s actually a shingle headland, surrounded by the English Channel.

For me, there’s something Daliesque about the flat land and big skies. Wading through the shingle as the sun sets, the sky takes on an orangey hue. It’s easy to imagine the painter’s gangly, abstract creatures striding across it, but it’s easy to imagine anything in Dungeness. Its emptiness feels like a blank canvas.

Even the military has indulged its creativity here. The Denge Sound Mirrors were an early, not very successful, precursor to radar. Just up the road from the beach they sit among a cluster of reservoirs — great concrete ‘ears’ jutting out of the ground, that wouldn’t look out of place at Tate Modern, if they weren’t so huge.

Trinity House, Britain’s lighthouse authority, experimented with optics and fog horns here too. When it left, its former base of operations, Experimental Station, was taken over by Fiona Naylor, an interior architect from London and her late husband Peter Marlow, a photographer for the famous Magnum photo agency. They converted it and four other utilitarian buildings on the beach into cutting-edge architectural spaces, most of which are now available as holiday lets.

“Dungeness is a very exciting place for designers and architects to work,” says Fiona. “It’s not British and I think that’s one of the things I like about it, the fact it’s a very un-English landscape.” 

I’m staying in Radar, one of her buildings. It somehow manages to bring some of Dungeness indoors; the windows frame the landscape like pictures hung on a wall, and I sit there listening to music as a storm blows in off the Channel. With the rain lashing against the windowpanes it’s easy to feel like you’re on a ship at sea. “It can be very extreme because of the weather,” says Fiona. “You’re effectively in the Channel.”

If Dungeness is starting to sound a bit bleak, well, it often is. You might be reassured to know that Radar, at least, has underfloor heating to temper some of its more inhospitable tendencies. But, there’s no escaping the fact that Dungeness polarises people, and if you’re a convert, it sticks in the mind like nowhere else.

“If you fall in love with it, then you fall in love with it,” says Fiona.

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