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).

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit