Dungeness holds a surprising fascination for young children, as Louise Levene found out
The stony front garden of a dead aesthete may not seem an obvious choice for a day out with toddlers, but Derek Jarman's cottage at Dungeness holds a surprising fascination for the very young. Jarman's now famous plot flourishes in the shadow of Dungeness nuclear power station but despite this sinister presence on the horizon the area is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is home to a bird sanctuary.

Unlike the pantiled bungalows of Romney, whose gardens are an orgy of gay bedding, Jarman's garden and those of his neighbours are only permitted to grow indigenous plants such as sea kale and cotton lavender. The big difference between their efforts and nature's own arrangement is the obsessive display of stones and objets trouves that transform his slice of beach into a sculptural magpie's nest.

Every day, failing health permitting, Jarman would prowl the beach with a large leather satchel gathering twisted shards of driftwood and sinister curls of wire to adorn his stony beds. Every toddler who has ever amassed a collection of interesting stones relates to this immediately - arranging all the blue and grey pebbles in a circle to form a pond is really more playschool than art school.

Visitors approach the cottage rather gingerly looking for a kiosk or a turnstile to legitimise their trespass. Like all the gardens on this weird stretch of road, Prospect Cottage has no boundaries and wandering into someone's garden uninvited and unsupervised is an odd experience for the seasoned garden visitor. Tread carefully, the cottage is inhabited and although St Derek's pilgrims are not discouraged, simple good manners should prevent anyone picnicking in the grounds.

Besides, the children's wonderment will only last for about 15 minutes and this is your cue to take in a few other local attractions. Once a child has reached the Age of Negotiation (like puberty, this varies enormously) the prospect of a trip up the old lighthouse or a ride on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway or a safe paddle at Camber Sands should guarantee reasonable behaviour while the grown-ups do the thing they want to do.

You may, of course, want lunch. "Lunch in the country" always sounds attractive but only a fool would try to lunch in Lydd. The town does not feature in the Good Food Guide and there is a very good reason for this. I once made the mistake of stopping for what is laughingly known as a Ploughman's Lunch in those benighted parts. The cheese was processed, the garnishes all came out of a jar and the bread was still frozen solid in the middle. The journeymen of Olde England must have been very easy to please if they were sustained by this muck. The proudly advertised pub garden always seems an attractive option when you have small children until you discover that it is, in fact, two filthy, wasp-infested picnic tables sited on a patch of waste ground covered in dogshit. Picnic on Camber Sands, squabble in the car, anything but a frozen ploughman.

When the tide has finally crept up the shallow beach of Camber Sands you could nip up to Bodiam Castle. This is an immaculate 14th-century ruin: the exterior is flawless yet there is nothing but grass in the middle. Children can climb the turrets and wander along the battlements and take aim through the arrow slits - ideal for supervised play, and not a glass case in sight.

Canny negotiators may be able to buy themselves an hour at Christopher Lloyd's garden at Great Dixter en route to this moated marvel. Docile children will be fascinated by the fish and water-boatmen in the pond and enjoy guessing what Lloyd's bulbous topiary animals are supposed to be. More active types will probably make a nuisance of themselves running around the paths and spoiling it for the old cardigans who are there for the cannas and the clematis. Face it: not all children are suitable for garden visiting. If you are the proud owner of a hyperactive, Power Ranging dynamo, stick to rowdier pastimes. If all else fails, apply ice cream.

Six of the best things to do around Dungeness

Derek Jarman's Garden. Aim for Lydd then follow signs to Dungeness then take the beach road for two miles. Prospect Cottage is not signposted but you still can't miss it.

Dungeness Nuclear Power Station Visitor Centre: daily except Sat 10am4pm. Free tours at 10am, 11.30am, 1pm and 2.45pm.

Dungeness Old Lighthouse: open to visitors between Easter and October.

Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (01797 362353). An hour-long ride along 14 miles of the world's only 15in gauge line. pounds 8.10 return trip for adults. Children half price.

Great Dixter, Northiam, East Sussex (01797-253107). Open 2-5pm daily April to Mid-October (not Mondays, except bank holidays).

Bodiam Castle, Bodiam, Robertsbridge, Sussex (01580 830436). 10am-6pm. Adults pounds 2.70, children over five pounds 1.30

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