In the steps of st derek

At lunch in The Pilot at Dungeness, I recall that Derek Jarman came here on the day he decided to buy Prospect Cottage. In Derek Jarman's Garden he explains how he, Tilda Swinton and Keith Collins (to whom he eventually bequeathed the cottage) were scouring the Ness for film locations and stopped for lunch at The Pilot, where he mentioned he'd seen a covetable cottage. When they all trooped over to have a look at it, they found a "for sale" sign outside. Today, full of hearty Kentish families tucking in, The Pilot is a curious place to invoke the ethereal director - and his mercurial star, for that matter. I took Swinton to lunch once and she ate nothing. It is very hard to imagine her wrapping her face around The Pilot's famous fish and chips.

When we first came to Dungeness, a regular Bank Holiday jaunt for the past five years, Jarman was still alive; on our way to the lighthouse, we kept an eye out for his fabled lair in the shadow of the power station. We didn't know quite what to look for: the garden was well-known, but not the colour-supplement cult it has since become. But it was unmistakable: a black shack with window sills picked out in yellow, standing in a garden of stones and weird sculptural forms like bones bleached in the bright sun (Bank Holidays were hot in those days).

After a brief "we're not worthy" obeisance from the road, in case anyone was watching from inside (I discovered later that Jarman was in hospital in London) we shuffled self-consciously on the margins, and took a couple of shy photographs. Then I saw something tacked on the side of the house: twisted bits of driftwood set out in a jumble of lines. Emboldened, I took a step further, then another step, and the driftwood shapes began to resolve into half-remembered lines of poetry: "Busy old fool ... unruly Sun ... why dost thou thus ... through windows and through curtains call on us?" By the time I realised the words of John Donne in this setting acted both as an invitation to and injunction against peeping, we were too close for politeness. Retreat over the pebbles was speedy and ignominious, though we had to laugh later at this clever conceptual dig.

I only met Saint Derek of the Ness once, and it was such an emotional experience I had to go and have a sit-down in a cooling draught straight afterwards. It was shortly before he died, when he looked like a very elderly Chinaman in his long robe and tall hat embroidered with the word "Controversialist". Introduced by a friend, I clasped his hand, which was dry as paper and hot with beatitude. "How kind ... how kind," he beamed benignly as I babbled good wishes, then, turning back to our mutual friend, launched with malicious delight into a scurrilous anecdote about the actor Michael Cashman.

Going back to Dungeness today, I can see this spikiness surviving in the landscape. Behind its charm, it is almost a psychotic's garden: at the rear of the cottage, a skeleton army of menacing metal implements stands to attention, grown from nuts and bolts rather than dragons' teeth. All saints must have a certain hardness of character, and Jarman's fierce sanctity bristles visibly round the cottage, though a bench has now been installed by the road for the comfort of admirers.

Perhaps the most remarkable testament to Jarman's extraordinary influence and charm is the fact that several other beach-gardens are now sporting motifs such as flint circles and driftwood displays.

Right next door is what amounts to a sculpture park, and damn me if it isn't more witty, though inevitably less profound, than the original. Constructed from jetsam and plastic rubbish are a huge clock, a fish with a hook and line in its mouth and a boat. Mottos have been painted on pebbles and arranged in quirky patterns; heaps of junk turn into rudimentary figures, mournful or jaunty, one with a battered mop-bucket for a head. It seems appropriate that Jarman's ideas, like seeds, are being propagated by the wind into his neighbours' gardens. He loved Dungeness for its lack of hedges and barriers, and his garden expands to take in the sea, the sky, and the pylons which march steadily to the horizon, taking electricity from the power station.

That's another thing you can do here apart from admire the gardens, and eat at The Pilot: visit the power station, or rather stations. I can unreservedly recommend Dungeness "A", the old station with control rooms out of Dr No. Part of a determined PR job, the tours are free and preceded by a whizz-bang film about the fantastic cleanliness and cheapness of nuclear power. Then it's hard hats on for a tour round the turbine hall and a look at the linoleum floor, sinister in its banality, which covers the reactor. We are all ceremoniously counted into the site and counted back out again, and the guide's scrap of film, worn as a kind of brooch, records how much radioactivity she and we are exposed to. The insistence on safety procedures is not so much reassuring as slightly camp.

The nearest to hot nuclear action we get is watching operatives taking spent fuel rods out of the core by remote control via a fuzzy screen. But there's an exciting Silkwood moment at the end of the tour when we all have to push our way through a complicated turnstile, which will refuse to release us if we've been contaminated. Slightly disappointingly, we're all in the clear. So much for living dangerously on the Ness - something Derek Jarman at least knew all about.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Engineering Project Manager

    £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Software Developer - Java

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning digital publishing solution...

    Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - City

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: NON-CONTENTIOUS (0-2 PQE) - A rare opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Financial Analyst

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Financial Analyst is required to join...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness