Travel: `Death Valley' in full bloom

Derek Jarman recognised the strange beauty of Dungeness. Lilian Pizzichini went to see it for herself

Since the 1950s, the Sussex Emerald Moth has chosen to take up residence in the largest shingle promontory in Europe, six miles south of New Romney, at Dungeness, bypassing the rest of England. And that, I have to say, is the least interesting fact about this desolate corner of coastal Kent.

Wade through the Romney Marsh and across the shingle at Dungeness and you'll find yourself deep into the English Channel, and passing through one of the last strongholds of Kent smugglers and fishermen. The Ness's great mass of some 600 ridges has taken 5,000 years to develop. It has its own weather system, each shingle ridge enjoying its own microclimate; it supports many rare plant colonies and insects; hosts a 1,000-acre nature reserve, a fishing community, a lifeboat and working lighthouse, a narrow- gauge railway and two nuclear power stations.

So, in this concentrated area that measures 12km in one direction and 6km in the other is the most fascinating piece of wasteland you could ever hope to see. And people actually live here, exposed to the elements in pretty, timber-framed cottages that nestle between shingle and swamp. The most famous resident was the late film director, Derek Jarman, whose garden of flotsam sculptures still attracts admirers. Perhaps you need an artist's eye to appreciate the unique beauty of Dungeness, or at least a melancholic disposition that will feel at home in the flat and, at first sight, featureless terrain. Because, during winter, Dungeness has the barren desolation of a post-apocalyptic desert. Rain, hail and snow do not arrive in the normal vertical direction but in a horizontal sheet driven by a bitter and desiccating wind from across the Channel which destroys all but the toughest plants. Perennials retire underground; annuals hibernate in seed form. Summer sees a brighter vision of Death Valley, with a glare of light bouncing off the shingle and causing a heat haze.

The remoteness of Dungeness is illusory; it is easily reached from Folkestone or London by car. Or, in keeping with its surreal, other-worldly aspect, you can take a tiny train that puffs its way across the marsh and stops just next to the Old Lighthouse. The steam and diesel locomotives of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway have been hauling coaches at 25mph across 13.5 miles on a 15in gauge since 1927. Any sense of scale or proportion is lost as soon as you step out of the miniature, two-seater carriage on to the miniature platform, and see the huge expanse of sky above, the glowering nuclear reactor in front of you and acres of waterlogged plain.

But this time of year sees Dungeness at its most hospitable, with flowers in bloom and migratory birds dropping in en route to other climes. The attendant twitchers were out in force exclaiming over rare sightings of wheatears on their way to Scandinavia. Dotted around the pits and pools where leeches and Silver Diving Beetles swim, the prickly spotted stems of Viper's Bugloss were forming clumps of intense blue. Hedge-mustard, which fights for the Viper's territory, was waving airy yellow flowers in the breeze. Visitors are encouraged to walk to the power station because great drifts of short-stemmed foxgloves (short-stemmed because there is very little nutrient in the shingle so the plant puts all its energy into making vivid displays) decorate the security fencing which, a helpful leaflet from the Visitor's Centre informs, "catches the seeds as they blow across the beach in the autumn, and then protects the young plants for the first year of their biennial life".

There is a great spirit of community at The Ness. I suppose there has to be, because humans are by far the most vulnerable indigenous life-form. The squat cottages, though well tended and spruce, seem oddly out of place in this wilderness of rampant fertility, with Wild Carrot (which feeds the Sussex Emeralds), Knapweed, Wood Sage, Valerian, Sea Kale, Yellow Horned Poppies and Nottingham Catchfly threatening to swamp them. Drainage dykes, or ineffectual white picket fences, are the only boundary between them and the famous shingle mounds. Climb over their unfeasibly large pebbles and you can test the waters of the great grey sheet of sea. And the closer you get to the sea, the more marine life you see crawling out of the Channel in the wake of gaily painted fishermen's boats, as they sit moored and patiently awaiting the right weather for the next big catch.

The massive presence of the power station is inescapable. It lords it over the Ness like a benevolent tyrant providing shelter for plants and wildlife, employment for locals, and a darts team for The Britannia pub (where the cod is freshly caught and the chips are sprightly). But above all, it imparts a sinister atmosphere that makes you think you've stumbled upon the end of the world, or at least an impending nuclear disaster. The steel-grey walls seem to have evolved, in a mutant metallic form, out of the endless shades of green, grey and yellow of sea, sky and marsh - all of them bleeding into each other. As I looked across the marsh towards New Romney, there seemed to be no vanishing point. And when I turned to face the sea, it spread itself out evenly up to the horizon where a tanker - so small it looked like a toy - marked the faint division.

Only the power station and lighthouse make a vertical ascent. Both are open daily to the public, but as the last tour of the station was at 2.45pm, I was too late. From across the beach, though, I could hear the rumbling of its reactors "generating electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year", and I might have imagined it, but I swear I saw an orange glow like hell-fire emanating from one of the windowed containers.

For human intercourse, my only resource was to take tea in the station cafe where elderly ladies linger over copper urns and serve home-made cakes. Then I caught the mini-train back to Hythe, where I would get the grown-ups' train for Folkestone. With a blast from the stationmaster's whistle we were off, cutting a swathe through shingle banks, and waving goodbye to the marooned cottages and the vast grey bulk of their big-brotherly neighbour.

Lilian Pizzichini travelled from London to Folkestone on a Connex Southwest train, and stayed at Martinfield Manor, Lydd Road, New Romney, Kent TN28 8HB (tel: 01797 363802).

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