With my explorations of Rye and Winchelsea over (see my previous article Rye Rambles) I headed off into Kent towards Dungeness via Romney Marsh.
Romney Marsh is sometimes known as “The Fifth Continent”… due to its natural beauty the diversity of its habitats and its rich history and coastline.
“The world, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh”…so said the Rev. Richard Barham and this epithet has continued to date.
Rev. Barham was a vicar of Snargate, a small village on the marsh, and is probably better known by his pen name Thomas Ingoldsby. His work “The Ingoldsby Legends” or “Mirth and Marvels” published in 1837 features the above quote.
This sparsely populated area has only existed within the last thousand years, before that it lay under the sea. Following the last Ice Age a shingle spit began to develop just east of Hastings which lies to the west. This slowly built up until a chain of shingle reached Hythe some 33 miles to the east.
Behind it a lagoon and salt marsh developed thus beginning to form Romney Marsh. Today the old quarried shingle pits are lakes teeming with birds and fish, some are used for water sports whilst on the seaward side are miles of beaches. On the landward side of the shingle bank is rich green farmland crisscrossed with quiet lanes and it was off along one of these lanes that I headed in search of a unique church.
At the Heritage Centre in Rye I had spotted a postcard of the church of St Thomas à Becket, in Fairfield, seemingly built in the middle of farmland.
St Thomas à Becket is situated in the middle of farmland…
…and surrounded by watercourses with meadows grazed by sheep
A causeway was built in 1913 and until then the church was often surrounded by water during winter and spring, as illustrated by a photograph hanging in the church.
The church surrounded by flooded meadows
The church is kept locked these days so in order to visit, I had to find the nearby Becket Barn Farm to obtain the key.
The church key hanging on the wall…
…and what an enormous key it was!
Originally built around AD 1200 the church was a simple structure of timber and lath built as a temporary measure to provide local farmers with a place of worship. By the 13th century this temporary church had become permanent and the building remained intact until the 18th century when the entire wooden building was encased within brick walls and the roof covered with red tiling.
Opening the heavy door, once inside it was like stepping back into the 18th century with rows of box pews painted white and lined with black, and a triple decker pulpit rising above them.
White painted box pews and pulpit with low timber arches
The church is known for its internal timber framing with low timber arches over the nave. It also has an unusual seven sided font.
View from the pulpit towards the seven sided font which is a unique design in Kent as it is unusually plain. The seven sides may be a nod to the seven sacraments of the church
This iconic church has been used as a film location including the 2012 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations.
Once outside I was greeted by a friendly sheep!
The Marsh is known for its breed of sheep known as the Romney by Kentish farmers. It is a long wool sheep that has been recognised in England since 1800 and is an economically important sheep breed for wool and meat. They are a breed that is very resistant to foot rot which comes in useful given these wet pasturelands.
One sheep leads the advance party and the others are bound to follow! I am not sure if these are ‘Romneys” but they are on Romney Marsh!
After returning the key, I drove on to Dungeness to explore the area known as a “desert”!
Dungeness derives its name from Old Norse, nes meaning headland. It is also known as “dangerous nose” from French origin. Sheltering the marshland behind, Dungeness is one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe. It has been dubbed the only desert in the UK due to its low annual rainfall figures, but the Meterological Office refuted this in 2015.
Today this area is subject to many conservation designations designed to protect its rich and varied habitat for wildlife and for its geological importance. More of which later but first to meet my next mode of transport – a train – and a very small one too!
The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR) is a 15 inch gauge light railway. Opened in 1927, it runs from Dungeness to Hythe some 14 miles away. Until 1978 it held the title of the smallest public railway in the world, until a smaller one opened in France. and latterly a further one in Norfolk.
The RH&DR was the dream of two millionaire racing drivers, Captain John Howey and Count Louis Zboroski.
Zboroski designed and built his own racing cars and his first car was called “Chitty Bang Bang” which provided the inspiration for the later film and book. He died after hitting a tree whilst competing in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1924, so Howey carried on alone to build the railway.
The Crest of the RH&DR
During the second World War the railway was taken over by the military and it was used in the construction of PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) to supply fuel to the Allied Forces after the D-Day landings. After the war much damage had been done to the trackbed which was reduced to a single track but it was restored and re -opened in 1946 with a formal opening by Laurel and Hardy in 1947!
Laurel and Hardy officiate at the railway opening in 1947
The regular service began in 1947 and today stops at 7 stations. Formerly there were another 8 stations or halts which have since closed. I boarded the train pulled by the engine “Typhoon” built in 1927.
The steam train “Typhoon” building up a head of steam
On such a hot summers day it was a wonderful journey with the breeze blowing through the sided open carriages and it was crowded with train enthusiasts and happy families with picnics who were stopping off to enjoy the various beaches en route to Hythe.
During my short stop at Hythe just outside the station I came across the other end of the Royal Military canal which I explored previously in Rye Rambles
Back onto the train for the return journey to explore more of Dungeness.
Nothing quite prepares you for a visit here. I first came to Dungeness in 2005 and have been smitten by its extraordinary beauty ever since. It is unique… it is desolate, a wild hostile and bleak landscape, with no boundaries, where the lighthouses and power station loom large, yet it is fragile and quite otherworldly. It is “on the edge.”
The National Nature Reserve is home to over 600 species of plants – a third of all the plant species found in the UK! It is also a home and safe refuge for wildlife with many uncommon bees, insects and moths.
Linnet on Gorse
The RSPB manage a bird sanctuary and observatory here and it is a great place to see migratory birds in spring and autumn as they arrive and make their first landfall. The flooded gravel pits with both fresh and brackish waters provide ideal breeding grounds and winter homes for wildfowl and in summer the reserve is home to many butterflies and dragonflies.
Sitting somewhat incongruously amidst all this richness of nature is the huge Dungeness nuclear power station.
Dungeness A Power Station to the left and Dungeness B to the right
Dungeness A is a legacy Magnox (uranium based) power station, connected to the National Grid in 1965, it was decommissioned in 2006.
Dungeness B, an advanced gas cooled reactor is still operational and was commissioned in 1983 with decommissioning expected in 2028.
Originally built, owned and operated by the Central Electricity Generation Board Dungeness B is operated by EDF Energy today, whilst the original legacy Magnox plant A is owned by the Nuclear Decommisioning Authority.
The power stations are built on the edge of the shingle and as a result of Longshore Drift the entire area is moving north and east as the sea constantly moves the shingle. A fleet of lorries continuously maintain the shingle sea defences with around 30,000 cubic metres of shingle being moved each year.
Beach fishing is very popular at Dungeness and two outfall pipes from the power stations discharge waste hot water into the sea. This enriches an area on the sea bed and is known as “the boil” or “the patch” by local anglers.
With the sun going down I walked back towards the car and had a chance encounter with a local resident – a fox! With no natural predators here he was not shy and stood looking at me before disappearing down a hole under a gorse bush! I wonder if he was “Foxy Ralph” a fox featured in photos I have seen on Instagram?
Last night at the Pilot Inn I saw a signpost directing me two of todays destinations
Today I am off to revisit Prospect Cottage the home of the late filmmaker Derek Jarman.
This is the first photo I took of Prospect Cottage in 2005
Jarman was best known for his controversial films such as “Jubilee” and “Caravaggio” but he was also a stage designer, diarist, artist and gay activist.
Moving to Prospect Cottage with his partner Keith Collins in the mid 1980’s, he created the remarkable garden that is still exists today. Jarman lived there until his death from AIDs in 1994.
He was a keen gardener from childhood and with his artist’s eye and his horticultural expertise he created a beautiful garden in a most inhospitable setting.
“Paradise haunts gardens”, writes Jarman, “and it haunts mine”
In his book he describes how the garden began, at first planting a dog rose and then adding other salt loving beach plants in the bright shingle and embellishing them with assorted flotsam, driftwood and stones he found on his daily walks.
One thing that is first apparent in Dungeness is that the wooden houses have no boundaries, most unusual for British gardens. The garden around Prospect Cottage, like the houses themselves, appear to emerge from the landscape having no need for solid boundaries to ground them and to fix them in place.
“The front garden” of Prospect Cottage 2005
“The front garden” in 2017
At college I was told to always remember the verse by Alexander Pope when planning new garden and landscape designs… “Genius loci” “Consult the genius of the place in all”. This was clearly central to Jarman’s garden design thinking too.
Unusual “Moomin” shaped flints create delightful sculptural forms in the shingle
Rusting metal finds add a sculptural twist
Driftwood finds provide sculptural vertical accents
Rusted metal, twisted remains from fishing and wartime mines, fishing floats and chains contrast beautifully with the shingle
Lavender, Santolina, Yucca and Sea Kale thrive in the shingle
On the tarred timber southern wall of the house in cut out wooden lettering is the first stanza and last six lines of John Donne’s poem “The Sunne Rising”
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.
Much has been written about the garden of Prospect Cottage and many photographs are taken. I can add no more than I personally think it is one of the best garden designs I have ever seen. It is truly inspirational and it belongs in and pays homage to its location, a true garden of paradise in a desert.
Over the road from Prospect Cottage are many old fishing boats and remains of the railway once used by local fishermen to transport their catches.
Remains of the fishermen’s railway track
Derelict hut and beached boat
On now and in Virginia Woolf’s words…”to the Lighthouse”!
Since 1615 when the first lighthouse was built there have been seven lighthouses at Dungeness five high ones and two low ones.
Six of the seven lighthouses that have existed (drawing from romneymarsh.net website)
It is the fourth lighthouse or “High Light Tower” that I plan to visit. After 3 years in construction it was opened in 1904 and it provided a welcome land light to vessels negotiating the English Channel for 56 years. Decommissioned in 1960, it now houses a museum and you can climb the 169 steps to the top some 46 metres high!
Spiral staircase of 169 concrete steps hug the walls with a decorative wrought iron bannister…
…to see the great lens up close
Climbing through a small door at the top you can walk around the viewing platform for some spectacular panoramic views of Dungeness.
The tiny door to the viewing platform…
…and as the reward…fantastic panoramic views including the tiny RH&DR train…
…and the current lighthouse closer to the sea built in 1961 with its unusual spiral ramped concrete base. Converted to automatic operation in 1991 it is monitored and controlled by Trinity House from Harwich
Directly below, the base of the first lighthouse, the Roundhouse and the two ex lighthouse keepers cottages…
…and the view over the power station
Returning down the staircase, I stopped off to admire the wonderful Sector Lights…
…before receiving my certificate marking my visit!
The Dungeness Estate is owned today by EDF the French energy company which operates the power station. Many of the wooden houses were formerly owned and occupied by fishermen. Walking along the road I noticed some houses that looked remarkably like converted railway carriages which indeed they were!
One of the railway carriage homes built from the remains of an entire train that was moved to Dungeness in the 1920’s
Many old buildings, some relics from the last war, have since been rebuilt as homes or holiday rentals.
From the top of the lighthouse several former buildings have clearly been repurposed
I passed by a derelict building, the remains of a Marconi Research station where in 1899 Guglielmo Marconi first transmitted radio messages across the English Channel.
The remains of the Marconi sheds which I believe have recently been demolished to build a new dwelling
My next destination was to find the “Listening Ears”…or “Sound Mirrors”!
I first learnt of these remarkable concrete structures from an episode of the BBC TV programme “Coast”. Unfortunately my visit did not coincide with one of the public open days to walk up close to them, but I thought a short drive and a walk might reward me with a glimpse.
Behind the lakes at nearby Greatstone on the north east side of the Dungeness Reserve, I saw them in the distance.
The largest sound mirror is 200 feet in length and 26 feet high
Original trials were carried out in 1915 for these pre Radar early warning systems, designed to detect enemy aircraft. The acoustic or sound mirrors that still exist today were built between 1928 and 1930, and range in size from 20 feet to 200 feet in size. As part of Britain’s defence strategy they were designed to pick up the sound of approaching enemy aircraft up to 24 miles away. The sound waves would be caught on the curved concrete mirror, be relayed back through microphones to an operator, who would then raise the alarm.
The mirrors did work, although they found it difficult to distinguish between aircraft and seagoing vessels, and with the invention of radar in 1935, the mirrors were finally abandoned in 1939.
I drove on towards Hythe to search out another listening ear which I had seen in the distance on my train journey earlier
The Hythe Sound Mirror now fenced off and a little dilapidated
Interpretation panel and model of a mini sound mirror…which worked too!
Now at Hythe, I had a church to locate. The Church of St Leonard sits high above the town and has a most unusual crypt. The largest and best preserved collection of human bones and skulls in Britain are literally packed into the tiny crypt.
This ossuary or “bone house” is one of only two in the country (the other being in Rothwell, Northampton) and is thought to have over 1,022 skulls in total…many arranged upon shelves!
Skulls tidily arranged on high shelves
There is also a single stack of bones and skulls measuring 7.5m in length and 1.8 wide and high!
There are many theories as to who the people were and how their bones came to rest in the crypt. Danish pirates slain in battle, men who fell at the Battle of Hastings, victims of the Black Death amongst them, but there is no firm analysis to support the theories.
A project a few years ago analysed all the skulls on the shelves and there are more females than males and nearly 10% are juveniles.
It is now thought that they were Hythe residents who had been buried in the churchyard but when the church was extended, their bones were exhumed and moved into the crypt. Whatever the story and whoever these people were it was a remarkable place to end my visit to this part of Kent.
I have explored just a part of the “Fifth Continent” and a “Desert” and found bones, listening ears, trains, churches, wilderness, power stations, wildlife, gardens, lighthouses, but there is so much more to discover and I will surely be making another return visit.
A final fact…I read in a leaflet that there approximately 99,127,646,216 pebbles on the Dungeness Estate! I didn’t have time to check!