“Why go to the Sahara when you can visit Kent?” “:” Desert “life at Dungeness | Kent holidays
The place which is sometimes called “England’s only desert” is accessible by a miniature railway line that connects a nuclear power station on one of the largest stretches of pebble beach in Europe.
Across the pebbly coastal plain, a gleaming tiny steam engine bravely and ridiculously passes past battered huts and abandoned fishing boats, to drop its passengers at the foot of a black lighthouse. The power station hums inland, too brutally large to understand.
Ahead, the pebble foreshore leans out to sea. Sections of the promenade lead visitors through the rocks, past pieces of rusty winching and outcrops of sea cabbage; in summer, the pebble landscape is red with poppies. Coming down from the wooden planks, the stones creak with every step. The shingle is made of flint. If you lower your boots sharply, your steps could cause sparks.
The English Desert of Dungeness attracts a million people a year, pilgrims to its strangeness. Why go to the Sahara when you can visit Kent? The promontory rises from the southeast coast towards Boulogne-sur-Mer, 30 miles across the Channel. He’s on a branch, on his way to nowhere.
We didn’t arrive by train, my partner Caroline and I, but by bike east along the Rye Sand Dune Coast, inland through the town of Lydd, then back to the sea. Despite the cloudless and dazzling sky, what looked like a gale force wind tore us all along, causing our lungs to breathe if we faced it directly, so that we moved forward like drunkards, staggering and panting.
Sometimes the wind was so strong that it almost forced us back, or sheltered by barriers erected against the sea, but soon there was no shelter. In front, there were only pebbles. The void seemed immense and we became extremely small. The distances were difficult to assess, the proportions misaligned.
We stayed a week at Dungeness in a hut – it belonged to a friend’s family – and spent our days walking the foreshore and our evenings watching the sun collapse into a flickering orange ball, like a UFO. beaten down. The sky was not the English sky but the sky of a larger continent, with a brighter quality of light. Our findings have gotten stranger. Surprisingly for what at first glance looks like a desolate place, this promontory provides habitat for a third of Britain’s plant species, many of which are rare; the incessant sieving of the sea sorts the pebbles into hollows and ridges that retain rainwater, creating small pockets of life.
Driftwood and junk sculptures jut out along the shore, the creations of artists drawn here by the legacy of Derek Jarman, the avant-garde director who coaxed a garden with the stones. And in a strange place offshore, hidden pipes drain the hot water from the nuclear power plant (actually two nuclear power plants, Dungeness A and Dungeness B) into areas dubbed “the boils,” where the higher temperature attracts tiny sea creatures which in turn attract schools of fish and flying seagulls. The sewage is – apparently – clean, but suspicion of mutant energies is difficult to overcome.
One evening at sunset, with a crimson light pouring on a scene of marram grass whipped by the wind and the skeletons of boats, I lived a moment of dislocation; suddenly I was not in England but in a North American wilderness, some time in an imaginary future that seemed dreamily familiar to me, surrounded by the wrecks and jetsams of a collapsed culture. The light; rusty metal cables; plants like disfigured cabbages; the presence of the control units with their flashing lights; the landscape is pure oddity: it was briefly enough to free me up time and space. “Outlandish” comes from Old English tland, which means foreign country, and that was the strange effect of this desert. It made my country foreign.
Dungeness – disappointing – is not really a desert. To be considered a true desert, an area must receive less than 250 millimeters of precipitation per year. Dungeness has much more than that: sea cabbage, sea holly, orchids, vetch, broom, sorrel, sage, bugloss, poppies and 600 other plant species are proof of that. In 2015, the Met Office officially disproved the myth of the Pebble Desert status.
Nevertheless, for a moment, I found myself transported.
After our week at Dungeness, the experience stuck with me. It was like falling into the clear light of another world, of a place “completely elsewhere”, like the line of that poem by Auden which had always shot me. But it was not elsewhere, not far at all. What was it about the idea of a desert – not even truly desert – tucked away in the south-eastern corner of England that was so exhilarating?
England must not have a desert, nor anything that resembles it from afar; the suspicion of such a thing seemed dangerous and subversive. Deserts surely belong to places far and far from this pleasant green land, or from this over-civilized era. There shouldn’t be room for them here. And yet here is one (almost).
As a travel writer increasingly aware of the damage travel can cause – primarily, of course, the chemical violence caused to the stratosphere by airplanes – I was looking for transformative travel closer to home. That was in 2019, and since then the pandemic has only brought the horizons closer together. Over the past year, many of us have searched for extraordinary things on a daily basis, not out of choice but out of necessity, and even as borders are opening again, this forced focus on the local can change the way we do business. travel for a long time. As lockdowns ease in some parts of the world, infection and death rates are skyrocketing in others; between Covid-19 and climate change, the practical – and ethical – aspects of travel are busier than ever.
My previous books had been about walking and Europe, and in both I had experienced states of extravagance. Often, these states did not occur in isolated wilderness areas but near cities, roads and agriculture. This closeness increased, rather than decreased, their magic. It seemed to be a version of the otherworldly Celtic conception, which exists alongside ours, and can be viewed in certain places, or in certain states of mind. As the Welsh mystic Arthur Machen wrote of London at the turn of the 20th century:, not in the heart of Africa, not in the legendary hidden cities of Tibet.
While I wanted to venture beyond Gray’s Inn Road, the idea that wonder, mystery, awe, new worlds and unknown realms might be found a train ride away, rather than on a flight to carbon intensive to the other side of the globe, possibilities have opened up for a different kind of travel. What other improbable landscapes could hide there, ready to draw the reckless traveler into the strange?
In the fading light, we walked to where the stony plain met waves, stooped fishermen, and cannibalized shipwrecks. The beam of the lighthouse probed the sky with the power of 100,000 candles. At nightfall, the quasi-desert merges with the graying sea.
We found ourselves in an open space that stretched out again and again, populated by the flashing lights of the trawlers floating offshore and the right-angled monoliths of Dungeness A and Dungeness B glistening inland. Under our boots, the pebble moved like a bed of atoms. Millions of years stretch between the flints whose striking once sparked a fire and the nuclear power plant whose waste will last a million more, a monument to eternity and extreme fragility. For a while in the dark, we stood between the past and the future; between what lies beneath our feet and what looms on the horizon.
Finding wonders on our shores – more unlikely British landscapes
A dwarf jungle of twisted green branches clustered with mosses, lichens and ferns, Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor is one of Britain’s best-known examples of temperate rainforest. The clue is the presence of epiphytes – plants that grow on other plants. Patches of temperate rainforest can also be found in Wales, the Atlantic coast of Scotland, as well as Cornwall and Cumbria. Rainforests seem to belong to a distant place, but their existence should come as no surprise in a place where it rains all the time.
The Cairngorm Plateau, Britain’s highest and coldest mountainous area, is defined as ‘the arctic-alpine tundra’, which means it is climatically and ecologically closer to Scandinavia, Siberia. or Alaska than neighboring Highlands. Shaped by glaciers during the last ice age, the moss and lichen weaving of the tundra is home to arctic species such as the Lapland sparrow, snow sparrow and roe deer, as well as the only free reindeer herd. from Great Britain.
The fjords – narrow, craggy coves carved into the rock by glaciers – are indelibly associated with Norway’s coastline, but a fjord is also part of a British border: the 10-mile-long Carlingford Lough, which separates County Down in Northern Ireland County Lough in the Republic of Ireland. It may not have the cliffside drama of Norwegian fjords, but it is a reminder of the great glaciers that covered much of the region during the last ice age and once formed a frozen bridge to the Scandinavia and Eurasia.
This is an edited excerpt from the introduction to Nick Hunt’s new book Outlandish, (John Murray, £ 16.99) published May 27