A Guided Tour

Dungeness estate is a turning off the Lydd/Dungeness Road.   It is a 'no through road' so once the obligatory visit has been made you will return from whence you came.

Before you enter the gates of the Estate proper you may observe to your right a row of cottages and a squarish building at right angles. These are the original coast guard cottages and part of the original watchtower, dating back to Napoleonic times. This is not Napoleon Solo of the 'sixties' but the other European, diminutive, Napoleon who, in the early 1780's was sitting across the English Channel awaiting the opportunity to sail across and conquer this little Island.  Fortunately we excelled at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1808 and we, fortunately, still speak English.  I digress – there were many watchtowers along the coast to observe any potential attack on England and the building here at Dungeness (now a smart Bed and Breakfast house – see 'Where to Stay') was just one of the many observation posts.

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Continue your walk to the estate entrance and you will  see on the right hand side a traditionally build brick building called the 'Watering House'.

 

 

This building, as the name implies, had something to do with supplying fresh water – in this case by a resident family, to passing shipping.

The road then meanders for a mile and a half ending at the old lighthouse and security fencing around the nuclear power station.   Close by, adjacent to a large car park is with the miniature railway (RHDR) station café.   However before you get there you will  cross the railway tracks – all of fifteen inch gauge and possibly the world's smallest public railway.


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Rounding  the bend in the road on the left hand side there is the latest (and one of three in my lifetime) lifeboat stations  which is open to the public most days of the week.   Now installed, since March of 2014 is the new lifeboat the Shannon Class 'Morrell', named after Barbara Morrell from Bromley who left £6 million in a legacy to the RNLI.

This craft is unique in that it is driven by water power and having no propeller can drive up the beach.   It is significantly faster than previous boats.   Visit the lifeboat page through links to see short videos of the craft in action and the naming ceremony by HRH The Princess Royal.

The lifeboat, part of the self-funding National Lifeboat Institution, provides an invaluable service to distressed mariners on one of the worlds busiest seaways. It may seem strange to foreign visitors to this site that such an institution is reliant solely on donations from the public. God forbid the government spend any of the tax payers money on such a worthy cause when the gravy train of civil servants is fighting for their increase in indexed linked pensions and other hard to justify expenses. Crewed by locals and mainly fishermen the lifeboat is a cause worthy of any  spare pennies you may have in your purse.

Just in front of the lifeboat station you will see one of the original Tan Coppers which, in years gone by, were used for 'tanning' the fishing nets. Before the advent of mono-filaments and oil based 'ropes' fishing nets, left in their untreated stated would soon rot – hence the dip in 'Kutch'. This tanning of the nets became a ritual and their were special 'Tanning Days' when all the new nets and fishing smocks  went into the coppers. From the 1920's nets were supplied pre-treated and so the 'Tanning Day' died a natural death.   We used to have a 'May Day' 'open day' on the beach – but it always rains on Mayday – maybe there Tanning Day could be resurrected!!!

As you look up towards the new lighthouse the view is one of, what appears to be, a mishmash of wires and telegraph poles.   It would seem that most who visit the area to take their ‘potted history’ photographs tend to ignore this array of disorganised wiring and concentrate on buildings and plants. To my mind the overhead telegraphy and electricity wiring is this is the most memorable vistas of the area and one that is recognised instantly in any painting or abstract photograph you might stumble across.  There is a little café/restaurant in the old town of Budapest where, and as soon as you walk in,  one is confronted by a painting on the wall immediately recognisable as the Dungeness skyline! (It was not established as to why and how a depiction of the Dungy should adorn a wall in an off beat café.   Attempting to question the proprietor only resulted in a bowl of goulash and garlic bread!).

Half a mile on from the lifeboat station on your right you will not fail to notice the black, ship lapped with yellow trim house of the late Derek Jarman.  This house not only attracts the attention of many followers of Derek’s works but keen gardeners.   Featured extensively over the years on, predominantly BBC gardening programmes, there is a continual stream of visitors to admire this very unusual wild garden creation which fortunately is today lovingly maintained by Keith Collins.

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Somewhere on the left you may detect a mound of beach which, in the late 1940s and into the early fifties, was the location of the then lifeboat station. Considering the boat was launched straight down into the sea this will give you some idea on how much the sea has receded or rather an indication on how the beach has been built up over time by the natural effects of movement of shingle around the point from the West.

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You may also note large pieces of concrete debris which are leftovers from World War 2 installations – Dungeness playing an important role in the war effort.

Onwards, with the new lighthouse in sight you will pass a cottage with a square ‘watchtower’. This was a lookout and contact point for the local ‘pilots’ who were responsible for the navigation of shipping through the channel but now forms part of the dwelling within

You will observe, on the left, the now disused mini rail tracks that, in the days gone by provided the only means to transporting the days fishing catch from the boats to the road. Also in the distance the largish (too heavy to move) now redundant winches previously used to pull the fishing boats ashore. Prior to this members of the family used to haul the boats onto the beach by hand. It must have been an exceptionally hard life and in a way ‘thank goodness’ for progress. The fishing boats themselves have changed dramatically over the years and the old and new can still be seen scattered around the beach. In one garden the very basic rowing boat and on the sea shore the large twin hulled craft of today.

Further down on the left a local house selling daily fresh caught fish. Run by one of the original and third generation of ‘local’ families you cannot buy a fresher fish ‘straight off the boats’. In recent months (March 2014) a 'Fish Shack' has  opened offering all the traditional fare from the sea.

Over on the right and set back from the road is one of the latest rebuilds.   Distinctive in its box like construction this property has been cleverly designed with the end glass room capturing not only the views over 180 degrees but all day sunshine.   In the past there would have been much criticism for any bold designs with the objectors claiming 'not in keeping' with the area – forgetting completely that the uniqueness of Dungeness has always been the diversity of the various buildings.   When everything is different how can anything be 'out of keeping?.   We should be grateful there are people around to put money into projects which will ensure there will still be a good mix of structures in another 100 days time!!

Further down on the right again set back from the road one can view the individual and quite clearly identifiable, air raid shelter/ 'Pluto' pumping station.

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This was, until very recently, a building used as the local church, a meeting place for the community and the local ‘Buffalo’ Lodge.   It has recently been sold by the trustees of the estate for private re-development.    There was some disquiet regarding the sale as it went ahead without the knowledge of locals, who would have preferred to keep it as a church and community centre.   Unfortunately there is no 'community' anymore to warrant maintaining it and the trustees do have a responsibility to create wealth for the owners of Dungeness.

Anyway it will be interesting to see what the finished building will look like.

In the good old days – pre nuclear power stations – local fishing boats used to navigate home by lining up the lighthouse with the Church tower in Lydd.  Following the building of ‘A’ Nuclear Power Station the church was no longer visible and at the time GPS was not a known aid.

Two structures were erected on the beach – one a diamond shape and the other a ‘T’, seen to the east of the power station. Fishing boat crews would simply line the ‘T’ up in the diamond and head straight for home! No one seems to have an answer as to what happened when foggy! Today of course the faithful ‘sat nav’ is an affordable item of equipment.

Further along on the right is a small shop – ‘Fifth Quarter’ selling mystical and other gift items and also, by appointment, Tarot card readings and other such ‘mystical’ and healing practicers.

On the right just on the corner is the long established bait and fishing tackle shop who also offer deep sea fishing. Dungeness beach is also the birthplace of the world famous (if you are a beach fisherman) 'Zziplex' fishing rods.

With the new lighthouse now in full view a concrete road runs off to the right directly down to the old lighthouse. Originally constructed as an emergency route to and from the power station but since the enclosure of the nuclear sites as a security measure, the road is open to the general public.

Somewhere on the left and hidden under the beach is a listening post. This was created during WW2 to house listening devices to pick up the propeller noises transmitted by passing shipping. It must have been very effective as it is still possible to feel vibrations through my bed when large liners pass by.

Having reached the new lighthouse you will not fail to notice, especially if driving, the degradation of the roads surface. Pot holes large enough to paddle in or kill an unsuspecting motorcyclist. The road prior to the lighthouse, from the estate entrance to the concrete road was, in the past, maintained by EDF, the electricity supply people, in an attempt to ‘make good’ any damage their lorries might have caused when shifting beach around for the sea defences. However the portion of road past the new lighthouse to the old one, not used by EDF, has always been neglected and repairs not effected until the last minute, when potholes are filled in. Unfortunately these temporary repairs do not last long and it would seem that the trustees of the estate are reluctant to replace the surface once and for all, despite the income they receive from various sources directly related to the area.

Prior to the construction of the new lighthouse – deemed necessary following the construction of the power station sat a ‘low light’ or more commonly called the ‘Fog Horn’, which indeed it was. The low light was a gift from the Americans and, unlike the quaint squeak the modern lighthouse transmits it produced an exceptionally loud and deep base noise. Standing in front of it as we did as children in the fifties it would physically rattle the rib cage. No such thing as health and safety in those days!

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One of the few remaining relics at Dungeness, apart from some residents, is the odd shaped structure pictured above. As children we called it the 'Decca Research Station' but in fact it was the Marconi structure or 'sheds'. Built around the late 1890's Guglielmo Marconi (best known as the 'man who invented radio') it was used for research and development in the transmitting of radio signals – and in 1899 Marconi became the first person to send a message across the English Channel. The structure still stands in a forlorn state. The current owner had applied for planning permission to re-build on the site with something 'sympathetic' to the area and a structure attempting to emulate what it was too replace. Nothing heard to date about any further development and in the meantime it deteriorates rapidly.

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In front of the Marconi building on the roadside sits a residential dwelling which is built around what was reportedly Queen Victoria’s personal carriage. This is not verified but from what the author remembers the rolling stock being a beautiful ‘Pullman’ carriage in brown with all the expensive fittings the Pullman was renowned for. A newly married couple who bought the building, then known as ‘Windwhistle’, in the early seventies covered the exterior with shiplap wood and painted it pink. It has changed names since and remains today a lovely atmospheric home with outstanding views to the sea.

Passing the new lighthouse to your left you will notice a small structure in the shape of a ‘T’ with two little windsock affairs dangling from either side. These fine mesh ‘socks’ are designed to collect any radioactive particles. The contents are evaluated regularly by the nuclear power station. It was interesting to note when radioactive detection equipment was installed in my property (as with others) there were no significant measurements of any radioactivity in contrast to samples of ‘Evian’ water and rocks from Cornwall which registered a higher reading than those taken in the local area.

On the opposite side of the road is the Britannia Public House which was created out of two air raid shelters in the late fifties. It has changed hands many times and indeed names, once being called the Smugglers. It was once the hub of the local community but with the changing mix of property owners there are less permanent residents and subsequently a much diminished ‘community’.

Onwards toward the lighthouse we have on the left a small art studio and small shop selling original photographs, paintings and prints created by the resident owners Chris Shore and Helen Taylor. Further along on the left we find another small art studio and gallery open to the public and then a large area being redeveloped from a mishmash of old pre war buildings into modern high spec quarters suitable for renting.

Directly in front of you – the two ex-lighthouse keepers cottages and the base of the first Dungeness lighthouse. The bungalows are of traditional bricks and mortar in contrast to the ‘Roundhouse’ which, built in the 18th century is of concrete block construction some 2 feet thick. The roundhouse provided accommodation for the keepers together with storage for fuel (originally wood then oil) as well as the main support for the wooden structure of the lighthouse itself. Internally the Roundhouse has been transformed into a comfortable unique living area with a separated self contained 2 bedroomed maisonette.

Prior to arriving at the Roundhouse Precinct looking left you will see the former coast guard lookout post, which was de-commissioned a dozen years ago. This has been transformed into a very high spec weekend retreat with quite amazing uninterrupted views across the channel to France.

And on to the Lighthouse:

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The 'new' lighthouse, now fully automatic with its new high pitched squeak (as opposed to its previous manly horn) is part of a national set up under the auspices of Trinity House. It is funded by a system of charges levied on commercial shipping.

 

The old lighthouse is now in private hands and if you hand over a few coins of the realm you can exercise the thighs on the 269 steps to the top. Surprising there are so few suicide jumps. The country cannot be in as bad a condition as we are lead to believe.

The Dungeness 'Trio' of lighthouse, 'Old', 'New' and 'Oldest' now known as the 'Roundhouse'.

And as a backdrop to this area of natural beauty and dominating the area are the two (for the time being).

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These two monstrosities, one the 'A' Station – the square looking in the foreground is currently being dismembered (I think de-commissioned is the correct word). A task expected to last up to 10 years although the radioactive areas expected to be around for up to 100 years. The other white elephant, with the rounded exterior is the 'B' station which is likely to be joined by a third and then possibly a fourth in the not too distant future. 'Over my dead body' is the plaintive cry from the locals – which, with another little mishap with the reactor, could possibly be a prophecy in the making. In the meantime its 'fission' chips as usual at the 'Pilot'.

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Especially for the lovers of the steam era, a slide show of the Romney & Hythe District Railway Dungeness steam locomotives:

Dungeness is also the 'end of the line' for the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway which claims to be the worlds smallest public railway, having a gauge of just 15 inches.

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Apart from the small railway there was a main line service to Dungeness.

In the Railways Act of 1881 permission was granted to open a line to serve the new port to be built at Dungeness (that quite clearly never went ahead!) to run from Ashford via Appledore and Lydd. On the 7th December 1881 the Appledore to Lydd section was opened for passenger service and the final link to Dungeness for freight only. However in 1883 a passenger service was introduced which continued until 1937. Freight movement continued until after the war, during which period Dungeness played a major part in the war effort. The rail tracks were then ripped up and today any signs of what went before have been erased.

 

Over to the right and partially concealed by a huge, now flourishing, shingle bank is the oft incorrectly called 'Coast Guard cottages.   This row of eleven terraced houses, ten of which are let to private individuals – the 11th being a bird observatory respite were in fact built and owned by the Royal Navy.   Officially they were known as RNSSS Cottages – the SSS standing for Shore Signalling Station.   This was in the days when semaphore was the only safe way to signal shipping off Dungeness.   The Pilot Public House has a picture of the flags as used.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Media interest:

Dungeness is also infamous for its numerous appearances in films, TV shows and adverts.

In 1947 funny men, Laurel and Hardy made a splash at Dungeness when they formally re-opened the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR). They were greeted at Hythe by the then owner of the railway, Captain J E P Howey following which they boarded an ‘express’ train to Dungeness, stopping only at New Romney. The beautiful steam locomotive ‘Black Prince’ pulled the VIP guests. This engine is now known as Doctor ‘Syn’ – I guess it was decided ‘Black’ was not very pc or more likely Doctor Syn was more commercial!

The 1950’s saw the making of probably the first film on the beach – ‘The Dark Man’ and then 'The Loves of Joanna Godden' with Googie Withers and John McCullen.

In 1981 the fantasy film ‘Time Bandits’ shot its 'Time of Legends' sequence on the beach and much of the 1998 Rachel Weisz movie ‘I Want You’ was set in and around Dungeness, with the lead character's home being one of the wooden beach dwellings.

Since then we have had Doctor Who, a Dennis Waterman ‘Minder’ episode and in it was also featured in episode 5 of the popular tv series "Citizen Smith", as the location for an interview with the ‘Rubbish Men’.

2005 Channel 4 TV filmed an episode of 'Up Your Street', featuring this Website owner plus another property owner. Well everyone has to have their 15 minutes of fame I suppose! Anyway the ½ hour program was a glimpse into two of the shacks on the estate – both constructed around an original railway carriage.

March 2007 a special ‘Eastenders’ episode filmed around the Britannia Public house.

Many years before I recall another spoof TV series in which our renowned band leader Jools Holland brought a little person from MARS to look at the shacks and interview some of the locals. Must say the Martian looked very much at home at Dungeness! Oh and they arrived in a ‘cut down’ Rolls Royce!

Anna Maxwell-Martin, accomplished theatre and film actress but probably best remembered for her BBC Television appearance in the acclaimed period drama series Bleak House and repertory actor Neal Barry filmed ‘The Other Man’ which eventually won the Edinburgh Film Festival award for ‘Best Short Film’. Also with the two actors was local Dungeness girl, five year old Tilly O’Neil who later appeared with Robert Kretschmann, Franke Potente Stephen Fry and Troy Garrity in the taught drama ‘Eichmann’, filmed in Budapest and Malta in 2007.

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In recent weeks we have had BBC TV filming further editions of the 'Coast' program to be shown later in the year.

Dungeness has also featured in an episode of the BBC detective serial The Inspector Lynley Mysteries and shortly after saw Robbie Williams making his video for an unmemorable pop song.

In the 2010 film Robin Hood, Dungeness is the landing point for King Phillip of France's siege on England, and the subsequent battle at the climax of the film. As it was not filmed here, the site on screen bears no resemblance to Dungeness at all.

2011 brought a crew from Channel 4 to film, another, ‘Ident’ sequence, this time from other structures on the beach including the navigation ‘T’structure.

Over the years numerous ‘pop’ videos have been filmed here and in no particular sequence of importance or relevance:-

The album/project titled Bass Communion, (one of Porcupine Tree's front man Steven Wilson's other bands/projects), features the T-shaped Shipping Marker. It is located near the fisherman's huts in Dungeness.

The acoustic mirror which can be found at Dungeness is featured on the cover of the album Ether Song by the British indie band Turin Brakes. Dungeness appears on the covers of albums as diverse as So much for the City by The Thrills and Aled by Aled Jones.

Athlete have a song on the album Vehicles and Animals called "Dungeness" which is about the area. Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly mention Dungeness and the lighthouse in their song "Lighthouse Keeper".

The Kent-based Hardcore Punk band November Coming Fire released a 2006 album entitled Dungeness, featuring a track called "Powerstation" which included a recording of waves on the beach. The Prodigy's single "Invaders Must Die" video was filmed here, and shows both the acoustic mirrors and the lighthouse.

The nuclear power station at Dungeness was mentioned in "I'm Ebola" by the band The Stripper Project who live in nearby Hastings "…I’m like a three-handed child in the shadow of Dungeness…where we can grow our extra toes.”

Dungeness is also relished, by photographers, not only for its unique location but for its good light. This in turn brings the catalogue companies and their anorexic models for their 'shoots', together with the serious wildlife photographers and of course the 'twitchers'. (Any foreigner tuning in and not au fait with the terminology can make use of the guest book – you may get an answer – hopefully useful).

Film companies do need to get permission from the estate trustees before utilising the area.

Down to the Beach

Well we have come to the end of our walk down the pot holed road and observed some of the ‘sights’ along the way. But it in’t over yet! There is more to see ‘off the beaten track’.

If you continue your walk across the beach in a more or less northerly direction (away from the old lighthouse) you will pass the site of the Dungeness main line railway station and over to the left, behind a large bank of shingle a row of ten cottages. These in past years were the Coast Guard employees homes, now let to those wishing to be the first to be annihilated in any power station mishap. One cottage is reserved for the RSPB and bird watchers fraternity. Continuing northwards in the direction of Lydd Church, usually visible in the distance, you will eventually stumble across the ‘lakes’. There are fishing rights for a peaceful day out and they also provide a safe for swimming site. Not to be confused with the other lakes clearly visible from the Lydd/Dungeness road which are fenced of and deep!

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Dungeness enjoys significant protected status under many guises and for good reason. It is one of the largest naturally formed shingle beaches in the world and contains an abundance of fauna and wild life. There are other links dealing in great detail what to see.

Dungeness is also home to a unique variety of wildlife and more than 600 different types of plants – about one third of all plants found throughout the UK. It is also  one of the best places in Britain to find rare species of moths, butterflies, bees, beetles and spiders. Many of the insects not to be found anywhere else.

A walk back along the high tide mark can prove interesting, especially after a storm or very high tide, when an abundance of flotsam and jetsam can be observed and rummaged through.

The ‘Fog Horn’ that is and was not! The structure is what remains of an ‘electric’ loudspeaker which was at one time linked to equipment that was used for experimenting in the making of noises. Known as ‘Decca’ experimental station it also provided unimpeded access for the testing of navigational radar.

Passing the new lighthouse to your left you will notice a small structure in the shape of a ‘T’ with two little windsock affairs dangling from either side. These fine mesh ‘socks’ are designed to collect any radioactive particles. The contents are evaluated regularly by the nuclear power station. It was interesting to note when radioactive detection equipment was installed in my property (as with others) there were no significant measurements of any radioactivity in contrast to samples of ‘Evian’ water and rocks from Cornwall which registered a higher reading than those taken in the local area.

This stroll will eventually bring you to the fleet of fishing boats – (a slide show of pics below). Fishing from Dungeness goes back generations and has supported many families over the years. It is still an important industry for the area albeit strangled somewhat by the enforcement of EU. Regulations. There are probably half the number of boats than 50 years ago although it is fair to say the size of the vessels and subsequently the size of catch has contributed to less boats.

However we and the occasional visitor can benefit by purchasing fresh daily caught fish off the beach. If you live too far away Richardsons will always post your some!!!

Last and not least just for the boat aficionados a slideshow of the Dungeness fishing boats:

Having struggled along the high tide mark from the old lighthouse you will eventually come across the fishing boats. Still very much a commercial venture for a couple of families on the beach. It is worth reflecting on the fact that in the past 30 years the number of boats has diminished from 25 – 30 to only 4 today – largely due to various European Union quotas.

The area around the boats may, at first, appear to be a mass of discarded junk. It may well be just that but in fact, upon closer investigation, it is possible to interpret this as a pictorial living history of the fishing industry. In the old days the fishing vessels were simply large rowing boats which were launched and landed by the hands of family members.

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We can see the advance of technology in the form of a wooden winch and the on to several hand cranked iron affairs. Later motor driven winches were installed and although basic and crude in design they continue in use to date. Also one can see the old ‘tannerised’ nets which were succeeded by more durable nylon items of today. You may still find some of the lead weights which held the nets down. These have history in their own right. It would seem, from a very reliable source, that when electricity first came to the area (late 1950’s) the heavy duty electricity cables were encased in a great deal of lead. No sooner had the electric companies delivered stock it disappeared – to make the weights!!!! At least this upholds the reputation of the past when smuggling and looting was prevalent.

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It is hoped to salvage the wooden winch and bring it back to its former glory, together with one of the replacement cast iron affairs.

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Before you get to the lifeboat station the location of the previous site, some 50 yards inland can be seen. An indication on how, in a very short time, the beach has been built up by the continual movement of shingle around the ‘point’.

Behind the mound of shingle upon which the boat house itself was located is the original building which was used for all the lifeboat equipment and crew rooms.

 

Article last updated 25 June 2014