Writing about the Downs recently I was wondering aloud how landscapes shape people. Perhaps I should turn that thought on its head and ask whether certain sorts of people and personalities are attracted to particular places and landscapes.
The question presnted itself when I found myself in Dungeness the other day. Actually I didn’t ‘find myself’. That paints me as a piece of human driftwood washed up on its shores. I went there to buy fish and, having just flicked through a book that Derek Jarman wrote about the garden he’d created around his getaway there, ‘Prospect Cottage’ I fancied having a look.
Dungeness is close to several of my favourite haunts such as Winchelsea and Rye but I’d never been. It’s not on the way to anywhere. In the context of the crowded South East of England it’s about as close to nowhere as you can get. The drive from Camber across Romney Marsh was bleak. Odd buildings dot the landscape. They look neglected and impoverished. On the right hand side of the road along much of the route to Lydd was the wire fence demarking Lydd Camp, an army base. In the distance loomed the brutal bulk of Dungeness nuclear power station. People complain about windmills in the landscape – they should try plonking a nuclear reactor at the bottom of their garden.
Just before Lydd there’s Lydd Caravan Park, its sign torn between inquisition and declaration; ‘Do you want the quiet life!’ I think I found the sight of the mobile homes parked squarely under one of the pylons carrying high voltage electricity from the nuclear plant strangely compelling. I stopped the car to take a picture. I could hear the buzz and humm from the wires overhead.
Having picked up some fish from M&M Richardson in Dungeness I swung into the road that led to the lighthouses and Jarman’s house. It’s the end of the line in every respect. The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway terminates here. The nuke plant sits there squat, concrete, like an outpost of Mordor. Dungeness is the UK’s only desert.
I’d expected Jarman’s cottage to be more cut off but there’s a string of houses, glorified shacks really, strung out along the road.
‘Fishermen.’ Hardly a surprise. ‘Artists. They like the light.’ Right. So there’s something of a community here then? ‘Not really. They like to be left alone.’ It reminds me of the anglers on the Oxford Canal I used to see regularly when I lived on a narrowboat. They’d gather of a weekend for matches and sit, all day, just far enough apart that they couldn’t talk to one another. It was a strange sort of companionship; solitary without being lonely, or perhaps lonely without being solitary. ‘Don’t go to the pub. Landlord doesn’t like people.’ I won’t. I hate inconveniencing publicans by trying to exchange money for beer and food. I can understand their resenting it, particularly in a place like Dungeness. The whole point in running a pub somewhere like that would be to moan about the lack of passing trade. You can’t really pass Dungeness unless you’re wearing flippers or, perhaps if you’ve worked long enough at the plant, grown some of your own.
This is the end of the world. Perhaps people do wash up here like driftwood. It has a stark beauty. And flowers. The desert was ablaze. You’d wash up here until the tide or death carried you on. Definitely the end of something.