It was one of those rare weeks where work went to plan. I never needed Saturday morning to tie-up loose ends or get prepared for the week ahead. I had the whole weekend at my disposal.
I could have gone anywhere but Dungeness was calling. I first visited this part of the Kent coastline as an angler almost twenty years ago and have been fascinated by ‘Dungy’s’ barren landscapes and general weirdness ever since. My previous visits were always around Christmas and New Year which is prime cod fishing season. This stretch of coast is considered a winter sea fishing Mecca, drawing shore anglers from miles away all hoping for a good bag of cod. I hadn’t visited for a few years and wondered if Dungeness would feel different during the summer, I had only ever seen this place in the bleakness of winter.
Dungeness is far from beautiful. The landscape is flat, void of any natural features, there is no obvious attraction but it draws visitors old and new alike. As expected, the nuclear power station is a big ugly lump of massiveness but you can’t help but be impressed by its scale. Maybe it’s the power station that people come to see, then the whole feel of the place captivates and keeps us coming back? I read somewhere that ‘Dungeness is beloved only by artists and loners’, maybe that’s the case?
I had been speaking with fellow cycle tourer and outdoor blogger Allysse Riordan. Allysse is a keen photographer and over a tweet I mentioned the photographic possibilities at Dungeness. I also had an ulterior motive, I wanted to pester Allysse for a photography crash course. We met at Rye train station and after a bit of lunch started our ride in the direction of Lydd on Sustrans national cycle route 2.
The first NCR2 signpost out of Rye was just over the bridge spanning the river Rother. From this point the route sets you off on a gravel trail through a field running parallel with the river. I’m always keen to use traffic free cycle paths, they’re always a pleasure to ride but I especially appreciate them when I’m riding with someone else. You can ride abreast, chat away and experience the journey together. The first thing we noticed as soon as we were on the path was the amount of wildlife that surrounded us. Sheep grazed the fields and wandered across the path reluctantly moving just before we ran in to them, swallows flitted low to the ground and more dragon and damselflies than I had ever seen before accompanied us along the path.
Cattle gates divide grazing fields from the narrower hedgerow lined parts of the path, at this time of year some parts really are quite narrow due to the hedges being at their fullest. A short distance on the hedgerows give way to a bridge that links the path over a small off-shoot stream from the Rother. Up stream a heron fished from the bank and small fry fish broke the surface. Just on from the bridge there was a large lake and watersports centre to our left, the small stream ran on to our right and we passed another two freshwater lakes with anglers pitched up, the sun was shining and there was plenty to look at as we rode.
This was turning out to be a really nice scenic country ride but at this point I did start to think about how contrasting the scenery was going to become as we approached Dungeness. I never had to convince Allysse to join me but our destination was my suggestion and I was starting to wonder what she’d think of it.
I was typically under prepared. I had chucked a few things in my panniers that morning and had only spotted NCR2 whilst looking at a map on my iphone outside Rye station, I certainly hadn’t done any research on the area. Since being been back I’ve looked at a map and on my next visit I’d definitely spend a bit more time in and around Rye. Rather than crossing the bridge over the river (as we did) you may want to stay on the West side of it for Rye Harbour and it’s nature reserve as well as Winchelsea beach. These can all be reached via a local cycle route which runs with the river and partly along the coast. If you are planning to go onto Dungeness you’ll need to get back to the bridge to cross the river. From Rye to Winchelsea beach is 4.7 miles according to google maps so it’s not a big detour.
Back on route, NCR2 takes to the road for a short section through the village of Camber. There’s nothing particularly attractive about the village itself, the main road consists of holiday parks one after another with a handful of B&B’s for good measure. However, the big draw is Camber Sands which is a large expanse of sand dune beach which is a site of special scientific interest and a site of nature conservation importance. Once through this section you join the coast road, unfortunately the sea defences are so high you can’t see the sea from the road but it’s well worth stopping to watch the kite surfing on the water and kite buggying along the sands.
The road switches back to cycle path and heads inland, the feel of Dungeness begins to take effect from this point in. Baron heathland, lakes and military training ground flattens the land in sharp contrast to the gordy built up holiday parks of Camber that we had just rode through. Allyse and I left NCR2 at Lydd and followed signs seaward to Dungeness. I hadn’t cycled this road before but had drove it a number of times. It almost seems that the colour is being drained from the landscape, the closer you get to the power station the more washed out it is. Dungeness road starts green and dense but gradually thins out as you head seaward, diluted by shingle, the strong green fades out eventually giving way to a shingle desert.
Dungeness coined the phrase ‘Britains only desert’, I get the feeling that this was an attractive headline created when the estate owners put Dungeness up for sale earlier this year. Of course Dungeness can’t be classed as desert, it doesn’t escape Kent’s annual rainfall tally but there definitely is a Death Valley feel about it, albeit a slightly stony version. I’d imagine everyone that comes to Dungeness heads straight for the power station, Allysse and I were no exception. We rode as far as we could along the stations perimeter and then climbed the large shingle bank to view the sea. Directly in front of the power station is my old fishing spot, it’s a mark named by anglers as ‘the Boils’. Large rings of warm water disturb the sea’s surface where cooling water is discharged from the power station via pipes on the seabed. This temperature change seems to attract the fish and is always busy with seagulls above. We watched the birds working over the bulging warm water, past the boils was a calm empty sea, in the other direction a mass of industry droning away with no sign of life visible throughout its entire compound.
Dungeness lies at the southernmost point of Kent and is an enormous flat of sand and shingle which has been a hazard to shipping for hundreds of years. The Lighthouse marks the end of the peninsula and is an important reference for vessels navigating the Dover Straits. There has been some form of light signal at Dungeness point since the 1600’s and today it is one of the few places that can boast having two lighthouses. The old lighthouse is now redundant since it was partially hidden when the power station was built. The present lighthouse was built in 1961 and as well as having the traditional top light the whole tower is floodlit which has proven to reduce migrating bird casualties.
Close to the working lighthouse is the Britannia Inn. Allysse and I stopped for a couple of pints as the sun dipped behind the power station. I took this opportunity to tap into Allysse’s photography expertise, getting a crash course in composition, light and all the elements that make Allyse’s photo’s as good as they are. Whilst here we decided that the fish and chips was a much better proposition than the hydrated dinner we had planned back at camp.
The pub walls have plenty of newspaper clippings, interesting facts and articles about the area. Pictures of celebrity residents, scene stills from films and album sleeves shot at Dungeness cover the walls. The director, artist and author Derek Jarman is famous for his love of Dungeness, he lived in Prospect cottage and is buried nearby at St Clement church, Old Romney. Prospect cottage and the shingle garden that Jarman created is probably one of the most photographed buildings here. The cottage is a timber built venacular style building like a lot of the cottages around Dungeness, finished in black bitumen for weatherproofing. Raised wooden text on the side of the cottage is the first stanza and the last five lines of the last stanza of John Donne’s poem, The Sun Rising. The cottage garden was made by arranging flotsam washed up locally, interspersed with salt-loving beach plants. The garden has been the subject of several books and even a track named ‘Derek Jarman’s garden’ by Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire.
Wild camping at Dungeness is fairly common although mainly by motor campers. Allysse and I left the Britannia Inn and rode towards the power station, pushing our bikes across the shingle heathland in the cover of darkness to reach a spot we picked earlier. Behind some gorse bushes we had found a rare patch of grass amongst the shingle. I set up my tent, Allysse was trying out a new bivvy bag, we were sorted in ten minutes and settled down with a bottle of red wine. It was a clear night, the stars went on forever and we appreciated our view of them without the normal amount of light pollution. Dotted around us the odd lit window positioned the randomly spaced cottages through the darkness. Behind us, over the gorse, the power station now floodlit in a yellow glow continued to hum away, the drone becomes silence, Dungeness silence.
A loud steam whistle startled us, then the recognisable chug of a steam engine started up. We had seen the tiny train chugging to and fro in the daylight but it was the last thing we expected at gone eleven. The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway is described as Kent’s mainline in miniature. The train is one third the size of a regular locomotive but is much more than a miniature railway. The train has been running long before the power the station and current lighthouse were built and is relied upon to get passengers to five stations between Hythe and Dungeness.
I woke just before seven and unzipped the tent to see Allysse already enjoying the day from her bivvy bag. A bivvy is definitely now on my wishlist. It’ll be perfect for most of my summer trips, no excuse in a bivvy to miss the sunrise. We started slowly, making tea and porridge and enjoying the surprising warmth of the late September sun. With our gear packed up we pushed our bikes through the shingle towards the old lighthouse. The small car park here is a favourite motor camping spot and as we passed we got a cheery “good morning” from a gathering sat outside their van, it was the same group that had watched us disappear into darkness last night.
Today was the practical side of my photography master class from Allysse. I found it amazing how we could look at the same landscape or object but Allysse would instantly see the photograph. She watched me take a photo and then patiently gave me tips on how to make it better. I was glad when she said this was something that would come with time, it certainly didn’t come naturally for me but I was getting the hang of it after Allysse’s pointers.
We spent the day taking in Dungeness and the surrounding area in the sunshine. I was determined to find the Denge sound mirrors which are three large concrete structures which were built to act as an early form of radar. I thought these odd listening ears would make some striking photo’s and tie-in with the weekends weirdness nicely, unfortunately we couldn’t get close enough to them for a good photo. There are guided walks available, find out more about the sound mirrors here. As a bonus we found a lovely beach at Lydd-on-Sea where we sat amongst the sand dunes watching kestrels hover and damselflies flitting about, one even landed and settled on my hand but I didn’t have my camera within reach … rooky mistake!
After a slow ride back to Rye station which was about fifteen miles away, we finished the weekend with lunch in the same cafe where we started off. I hope Allysse found Dungeness as captivating as I do, I’m already considering a return trip, just once I’ve polished up my photography skills!
See my article ‘A Guide to Wild Camping’