How to spend a perfect weekend in Britain's weirdest place

·7-min read
Dungeness travel holiday kent england - Getty
Dungeness travel holiday kent england - Getty

Deeply traditional and undeniably trendy, apparently ‘barren’ but astonishingly biodiverse, a pristine wilderness dotted with human detritus, a National Nature Reserve overshadowed by a nuclear power station, Dungeness is a mass of contradictions. And love it or hate it (and it is nothing if not a Marmite destination) residents and visitors alike agree that it’s one of the weirdest places in England.

On the southern edge of Kent, two roads merge into a single ribbon cutting across the flat, treeless landscape of one of Europe’s largest expanses of shingle. A headland (‘ness’ is Old Norse for ‘nose’), sticking out into the English Channel, Dungeness is often called ‘Britain’s only desert’. It receives a bit too much rainfall to qualify, but it’s easy to see how it earnt the description. Beautiful to some, desolate to others, artists have found attraction in both.

Paddy Hamilton sits on a wooden bench under a green umbrella in his Dungeness Open Studios, a little garden planted with a few painted sheds (an old bait hut, a boat winch shelter…) full of his evocative paintings and prints. He was drawn here by the “big skies and freedom to walk where you wish”. Dungeness “expands horizons, expands time… it gives you a non-prescriptive life.”

dungeness paddy hamilton - Juliet Rix
dungeness paddy hamilton - Juliet Rix

Hamilton’s home is a converted 100-year-old railway carriage – and his is not the only one. In the 1920s, 30 carriages were dragged from the declining mainline railway onto the shingle to become dwellings. The neighbouring Caithness Gallery is built of two. And our own temporary home, the delightful, newly rentable, Log Cabin, is constructed of three (plus extensions). Once you know what to look for (vaulted roof, narrow doors) you suddenly see that many of the houses here incorporate this strange bit of history that prefigured the closure of this railway line in 1937.

By then though, the miniature Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway was already puffing across the point carrying passengers on its tiny 15-inch tracks to the little station and the End of the Line café (which brings to mind, not inappropriately on a bleak day, the Hitchhiker’s Guide ‘Restaurant at the End of the Universe’). It’s a fun ride. The steam train’s smoky smell-of-the-past accompanying a tour of local back gardens, and a great sweep across the shingle alternating bare pebbles with long stripes of vegetation.

And it is quite some vegetation. The other side of the lines from the station is the perfect place for a bit of botanical browsing. I crunch across it with Natural England’s conservation officers Phil Williams and Ken Obbard: “The vegetation here is totally different from anywhere else,” they tell me. Dungeness is home to a staggering 600 types of plant, a full third of all those growing in this country. We spot the near-threatened Nottingham Catchfly (no longer found in Nottinghamshire) as well as sheepsbit, rare mosses and delicate lichens. Lumps of dusty-green cladonia (reindeer moss) scatter the ground like terrestrial sponges while sculpture-like twigs are covered in a flaky crust of sunshine yellow.

There are birds too, enough to merit an observatory and an RSPB reserve, which is celebrating its 90th birthday this year. Migrants flying from across the world and rare ‘vagrants’ that have strayed off-course make landfall here, and there’s everything from seabirds, waders, ducks and geese to regal raptors and tiny song-birds. The nuclear power plant doesn’t put them off. In fact, we spot a little black redstart perched on the power station wall. They nest here, apparently mistaking it for a rocky outcrop.

A tractor at Dungeness - Rod Standing
A tractor at Dungeness - Rod Standing

Dungeness keeps gathering human blow-ins too. Walking along the coast road, the traditional fishermen’s bungalows are now punctuated with the smooth dark walls and shiny glass of architect-designed additions. One trendily converted concrete box (along with its next-door twin yet to be raised from dereliction) was once a secret generator shed for PLUTO, the World War Two Pipeline Under The Ocean, covertly laid in 1944 all the way from here to France to fuel the Allied invasion.

Even Ed Sheeran has bought a property here, but he’s not much seen. The most famous Dungeness devotee undoubtedly remains Derek Jarman. His black weatherboard Prospect Cottage with its buttercup yellow paintwork – home to the cult indie film-maker from 1986 until his premature death in 1994 – has been recently saved for the nation. Its new custodian, Creative Folkestone, is completing essential maintenance before offering pre-booked tours from mid-July.

Open to all at all times, however, is Jarman’s “paradise” – the garden he created on the shingle around the cottage. Hardy plants, sea-sculpted driftwood, an old boat and a variety of flotsam and jetsam are artfully arranged in harmony with the view beyond. The beach, dotted with white-flowering sea kale, stretches out to a handful of colourful fishing boats and derelict-looking rusty yellow tractors still used to haul them ashore.

snackshack dungeness - Juliet Rix
snackshack dungeness - Juliet Rix

Just up the road at the SnackShack, we settle to sample the boats’ catch, at a picnic table in the sun between a pile of lobster pots and a blue-green container with a serving hatch. This place is no blow-in; it is run by a local family. Kelly manages the Shack, while her brother (who took over from their father) provides the fish.  As I order a scallop flatbread, Kelly points out across the shingle: “I can see them from here when they’re scalloping. Those scallops were caught just there”. They are delicious.

We buy some fresh fish for dinner and wander back to our railway carriage cottage, to watch the sky turn to stripes of slate grey and sunset pink above the endless stretch of mottled shingle and shimmering sea. Dungeness has inspired countless album covers, music videos and lyrics. We put on Athlete’s 2008 song Dungeness – slightly whacky, but strangely soothing. Rather like the place.

“I found a rope and a rubber glove, 
You found some pretty stones and they had holes so you could tie them together… 

Let’s go to Dungeness

Let’s go to Dungeness…

Where to stay

The Log Cabin

Perfectly located on the beach between the two lighthouses, a couple of minutes’ walk from the End of the Line. French windows towards the sea, spacious attractive interiors, very comfortable. Sleeps six. From £885 (three nights), or £1,180 for a week. (tlcdungeness.com; 07810 503366).

log cabin dungeness
log cabin dungeness

Castaways B&B

Six en-suite rooms, guest lounge with views to the sea, excellent cooked breakfast. £45pn single, £90pn double. (castawaysdungeness.com; 017973 20017)

Where to eat

The SnackShack

Open 11am-3pm daily February half-term to October half-term weather permitting (all seating is outside – or you can takeaway). The day’s catch from plaice to lobster, plus halloumi for veggies and freshly made ice lollies and flapjacks to finish. (dungenesssnackshack.net; 075493 77527)

The Pilot Inn

By far the better of Dungeness’s two pubs, with a couple of its own unique beers and large portions of fresh fish and chips and homemade pies. (thepilotdungeness.co.uk; 01797 320314)

There are no shops in Dungeness, though there are plenty within a 15-minute drive.

Don’t miss

The view from the top of the old lighthouse. Opened in 1904, it became redundant when the nuclear power station blocked the view of it from the sea. A new lighthouse was built close by, which is still functioning. The 169-step climb up the old lighthouse is well worth it for a 360-degree panorama. (dungenesslighthouse.com; 01797 321300)

How to get there

Parking is easy, but you can also get here by public transport. The high-speed train service from St Pancras takes just 40 minutes to Ashford International, from where a Stagecoach bus (number 11) goes direct to Dungeness (taking about an hour).

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