Dungeness: the last of England (Vision)

Compared to the ruinous cost of turning left when boarding a long-haul flight, the 50p upgrade to First Class on the train from Hythe to Dungeness seems as far removed from the modern day as the steam that powers it. As with many things on this consistently surreal part of the Kent coast, things aren’t always as you may at first expect.

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First off, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is, at about one stockily built person wide, positively Lillipution in scale. If a ride on one of its diminutive carriages feels like being allowed to play with the most extravagant train set in the world that’s because in many ways, it’s precisely that. The RHDR was created on a whim by two wealthy racing drivers, Captain J E P Howey and Count Louis Zborowski way back in 1927. Stranger than its actual existence, the RHDR is only form of public transport by which you can cross Romney Marsh and navigate this part of the Kent coast.

Sitting in the rear Observation Car en route to Dungeness, there are few in-flight style luxuries on hand yet this is undeniably the miniature railway equivalent of J Class. All mod travel cons. Nearly. There is a bar stocked with spirits, wine and beer but most of the passengers opt for mugs of steaming hot tea. In between replenishing drinks the barman, sat behind his waist-height bar, is engrossed in conversation with his pre-teen daughter. They are playing a game, naming the residents of each house as we pass their gardens. They know every single one, right down to the cats.

There are a group of elderly ladies on board and a pair of identical male twins with red hair and matching Arran sweaters. Everyone is jolly, despite todays grey skies and wind. The twins are tucking into mountains of ketchup-covered chips covered on polystyrene platters. One of the ladies is drinking a gin and tonic. The barman slides open the door to let some out of season holidaymakers get on at Romney Sands. It’s Some Like it Hot remade by David Lynch on Super 8. Soundtrack by Morissey.

At Christmas the carriages of the RHDR get a festive makeover and Santa sometimes stokes the engine. Occasionally you can get a three-course meal on board and during the Hythe Festival it becomes the Broadway-sounding Jazz Train. There are Mothers Day and Valentines events and other seasonal receptions in a waiting room at New Romney that has the same interior and possibly, you might think on first sighting, staff as it did when it first opened. With its toy museum and ice creams it makes you nostalgic for a childhood you almost definitely never had.

Frequently the railway gets used for private parties that are at least as popular with adults as children. In fact, you’re as likely to stumble across a London celebrity as you area local fisherman. For his birthday last year the art director Simon Costin, who in the past has created rain fall for Alexander McQueen’s catwalk as well as sets for Tiffany, Martin Margiela and Vogue, drove all his friends from London down to the railway in a coach. ’There were old ladies waiting with trays of sherry on the platform’, he says. ’It was wonderful. Then we all took the train to Dungeness, had fish and chips in the Light Railway Café and let fireworks off on the beach.’
’Beach’ somehow seems the wrong word to describe Dungeness. This isn’t a place of luxury hotels or faded glamour or Kiss Me Quick hats, though it certainly does have seaside character in abundance. It’s most commonly described as ’bleak’ and ’otherworldly’. During a winter’s gale, when visibility is poor through horizontal hail and hurricane force winds, it’s easy to see why. It can be an inhospitable, haunted place. In fine, sunny weather it has all of the eerie beauty and romance of the desert. The light is unique, crisp and amber. There is a cinematic quality to it that is very, very special.

Dungeness has certainly been well filmed over the last 20 years, having become something of a cliché with fashion photographers looking for that ’just so’ desolation to provide atmosphere for their shoots. It’s Paris, Texas by the sea. At low tide you can imagine walking out towards the water and losing yourself in the expanse of shingle, never to return. The landscape here has a washed out quality, like a hand coloured photograph. Grass takes on the colour and texture of bleached hair next to clouds of emerald kelp while the jet-black of power lines, telephone masts and wires cut through the space in every direction. The man made elements of the landscape stand out like Moon mission debris. Dungeness may be a thriving fishing community but there’s something almost post-apocalyptic about the way it’s boats litter the shingle.

The only way to stay in Dungeness itself as a casual visitor is to book in for bed and breakfast at the Britannia Inn, a pub so off the beaten track that it’s very existence beggars belief, as does it’s brilliantly retro chalk-scrawled cocktail list offering Harvey Wallbanger and Tequila Sunrise. Just head for the Union Jack flags near the lighthouse and you’ve found the Britannia. The site was originally a World War II marine bunker, refurbished in the 90s after a fire gutted the whole structure. On any afternoon it can be filled to capacity with locals in search of what many claim to be the best, and freshest, seafood anywhere on the coast. At other times it’s a sedate boozer and sometimes a make shift make up and styling area for photo shoots. There can be no other place in the United Kingdom where the industries of small scale fishing and high fashion come together with such a frequency.

Dungeness is but a part, though certainly the most fascinating part, of Romney Marsh. Before the Roman’s drained it the whole area, as well as its southern neighbour the Walland Marsh, was covered by sea at high tide. Now the coast is littered with fascinating little villages and towns with medieval Rye, 2 miles inland, the prettiest and most populated. Rye is one of those places that Londoners infest at weekends and talk endlessly about relocating to as if a picturesque environment could provide the answer to all their urban problems. Back in the 14th century it was a fortified town and one of it’s four gates, the Land Gate, is still there, snapped endlessly by day-trippers. Rye has cobblestones, an old port and antique shops lining its streets with a frequency that would put Starbucks to shame. It’s the kind of place that the word quaint was invented for. Walk around the town for longer than twenty minutes and somewhere near it’s heart you’ll stumble upon the lop-sided looking Mermaid Inn with its low ceilings, leaded windows and phenomenally good restaurant. If you’re looking for history, here’s 600 years of it – tuck in. The Mermaid has been the best place to stay in town for centuries. Away from Rye, the best option for a stay near the Romney Marsh shingle itself is on the seafront of Littlestone in New Romney, a couple of stops along the railway line from Dungeness.

The Romney Bay House Hotel has, in recent years, become as much of a favourite amongst peace-seeking Londoners as Babington or the various boutique-style bed and breakfasts of Brighton. The house was originally built for the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in the 20s. Its architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis was also responsible for Portmeirion in North Wales, a pseudo Italian folly that became the setting for the cult 60s TV series The Prisoner. With that kind of pedigree you’d expect the unusual. It sits in splendid isolation behind a croquet lawn and tennis court, a few hundred metres from a decaying water tower that is serving as the most unusual of residences, and a row of vast houses, any of which could provide a pretty good backdrop for a Miss Marple mystery. Originally Romney Bay House was a vivid yellow and locals referred to it as ’The Mustard Pot’. Now, as a hotel, it’s been painted a stark ice cream white. If you’re expecting minimalism, however, forget it. The pared down simplicity ends at the front door. This is a hotel that believes that more is always more. The furniture comes overstuffed and every flat surface is an opportunity for a silk flower arrangement or a similar interior flourish. Why leave a window ledge bare when you could artfully place a conch shell there? Antique toys litter porches, old pictures snake up the walls and china nick nacks gang up in every corner. Somehow it all works wonderfully. None of the 10 bedrooms have locks and in place of a Do Not Disturb sign you get a cuddly toy mouse on a piece of string. When you want a drink, you simply help yourself – there’s an Honesty Bar rather than a barman. It’s like visiting a reclusive, eccentric, wealthy aunt, right down to the four-poster beds and the pre-dinner gin and tonics taken by the crackling log fire in the drawing room. The hotel is run and owned by the Lovell family, a husband, wife, two daughter and one dog team who bought the whole thing lock, stock and fine china teapot from the previous owners in 2003. Nothing has been changed since and nothing is likely to be changed soon. It’s an establishment that thrives on repeat visitors. Romney Bay House represents the polar opposite of urban living. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to turn over a new leaf, sell up and set up something similar yourself. Why work when you could devote yourself your time to evening menus, wine lists and full English breakfasts, all three of which the Lovell family handle masterfully.

On the first floor of the house there is a ’look out’ with a telescope that, on a clear day, provides a view of the French coastline. If you want to take a closer look, Lydd airport is just minutes away and there are up to five flights per day to make the short hop across the Channel to Le Touquet. Like it’s neighbouring railway, it’s tiny and a place of pilgrimage for nostalgiacs.

For a quirkier and much more fun alternative to the Eurostar, Lydd Airport offers the possibility of chartering a 16 seat plane to Paris for just over £100 per person. That may be more than a single fare on the Eurostar, but it has to rate as one of the most appealing and unusual ways to make it to the French capital. More unusual still is booking in for lunch or dinner at the airport’s restaurant, Biggles. You peruse the menu and wine list while you buckle up to be flown around the countryside at low level. After a short spell in the air, it’s aperitif time.

The romance of the railway aside, on a fine summers day there’s no nicer way to make it from Littlestone to Dungeness than by walking. It’ll take an hour or so but you may be distracted en route as it’s also the best way to discover the wildlife and natural wonder of this coastline. There are insects and spiders in the shingle that exist only in this part of the country. You’ll encounter flooded hollows that support a variety of protected creatures and even if your interest in wildlife is as deep as it is shallow, you’ll encounter startling species of bird and butterflies rare to anywhere else in Europe. If you don’t really care about anything that photosynthesises or breathes you’ll still stumble upon strange and arresting debris – the sea washes up everything imaginable, and sometimes unimaginable, on these shores.

The richness of the nature along the Dungeness coastline is in stark contrast to the rest of what you’ll find here. As well as the nuclear power station, Dungeness B, that crowns the very tip of the beach, there is some dramatically unusual architecture on parade. This isn’t a community of the semi detached. Many of the cottages dotted along the coast have been fashioned from old railway carriages, given to workers on the nearby Ashford line as a parting gift on redundancy and subsequently used as homesteads.

Dungeness’ most famous resident was, of course, the artist, film-maker, activist and avant-gardener Derek Jarman. When he died 10 years ago he left behind a body of film work that, along with capturing the early punk movement (Jubilee) and single handedly inventing the language of the modern pop promo (The Queen is Dead; The Last of England), captured the landscape of Dungeness in the most personal of ways. One of his last films, the Garden, was a meditative, visually poetic feature starring Tilda Swinton and filmed entirely on the beach in front of his home. Jarman lived in Prospect Cottage, an uncharacteristically pristine black and yellow structure that is pretty unmissable as you walk along the main driveway that cuts through the beach. There’s a poem crafted on to one side of it while all around it you’ll find the eponymous garden, crafted and sculpted from indigenous weeds and flora and assorted beachcombed deitrus. At least once a day a fan of Jarman’s work will appear and photograph it. It’s in no way open to the public, but that hasn’t dissuaded the most ardant followers of his work from flying half way across the world from Japan just to make the pilgrimage to the shingle and this post-modern Giverny. Jarman’s work brought the Dungeness landscape to the attention of a whole audience of creatively minded people who may never have heard of it before. As well as being a hugely influential filmmaker, he single-handedly established Dungeness as a ’style’ rather than just a desolate peninsula at the heel of the United Kingdom.

Just a few minutes along from Prospect Cottage you’ll find a stunning new structure designed by the architect Simon Conder. It’s a home coated entirely in black rubber with a 50s silver Airstream caravan parked alongside it for a spare bedroom. With its floor to ceiling glass porch and sun deck jutting into the shingle, it has enormous presence. It could be a densely sketched child’s drawing, lifted from the page and plonked into this peculiar landscape, or perhaps transported here from a dream by a Wizard of Oz-style twister.

There is something magical about the Dungeness coast. It’s not a place for sunbathing. It’s a place for reflection and in which to find inspiration. Its charms are quite unique and for all its geological history, quite contemporary. It’s the seaside for the way we live now. When Derek Jarman was talking to the sculptor Maggi Hambling about his Dungeness garden she remarked,’Oh, you’ve finally discovered nature, Derek’. Thinking of the painterly images of Constable and romanticised oils of the Kent countryside he claimed to have done nothing of the sort. She disagreed and clarified: ’I understand completely… you’ve discovered modern nature’.

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