This isn’t England

This isn’t England. It’s a sub-Saharan dream. A cult film with characters drifting through a cinematic landscape of emptiness, rust, clutter and sea kale. Where the sea retreats and the vast shingle beaches drift and shift so much they keep needing to build new lighthouses.

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Derek Jarmen's garden with Dungeness nuclear power station in background
View from Derek Jarman’s house, Dungeness

This is England. Weather-browned police stand and chat, reminding you this is the frontline of the refugee crisis. It’s hot but the sea looks calm for the refugees to chance their luck with flimsy boats and the busy shipping lanes of the Channel. When the they land here, doubt will deflate joy and confusion will lance relief. Where are they? This isn’t England. Where are the gardens of Kent? That green and pleasant land?

They will be assured that this really is England. This is Dungeness. Its name traces back to obscure old English meanings of marshes. The headland at Denge. Marsh of the pasture district. Marsh with manured land. 

This is England. Where else would a one-third full size steam train run by volunteers chug by, smoke and coal cinders billowing over the back-gardens of bungalows baking in the summer heat and union jacks bleached and tattered by the sea winds. Suburbia by the sea.

Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway train and carriage. with driver checking engine
Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway train and carriage

The nuclear power station gently hums and roars, its structure of blocks offset by the elegant curves of the lighthouses. A mutant energy fuelling subversion. Its waste hot waters generating rich mini-ecosystems of fish and attracting wheeling sea birds. 

This is an England where architects can sink strange visions into the pebbles, like the Rubber House – a tactile, dense black. Where mystic artists can build sculptures of plastic waste and gardens of pebbles, driftwood and scrap metal around the dried carcasses of boats. Where the fishermen turn old railway carriages into cottages. Where the houses of advant qarde film directors are suspended in time to become pilgrimages of heritage.

Rubber House, Dungeness
Rubber House, Dungeness

The heat is unusually strong. Boats shimmer in the Channel. Maybe Dungeness is the future, an expanding landscape powered by climate change, slowly devouring another England not far from here. Lush green Kent gardens, lonely salt marshes, cider orchards, medieval towns and haunted inns. 

The noticeboards have unusual concerns. How many places have to demand permits for filming, photography shoots or student projects? The public safety one about the nuclear power station is hilarious in its English passive aggression. First, it sullenly admits it is required to have emergency arrangements in place. As if being forced to do this is so extra, so unreasonable. So here you are: in case of a nuclear emergency, you will be advised accordingly. How? There is no answer because that is the answer. With a hint of revenge, it then totally contradicts itself by saying in case of emergency, to leave the area immediately, listen to local radio and if concerned seek medical help. What local radio? How do you find it? Do what you can with that when the nuclear power station vaporises or irradiates you.

Wander through this other-worldly landscape of sea, pebble and rusting bits of winching gear. Where strange creatures and exotic flora have nature lovers leaping for joy and scrabbling for field books. 

This isn’t England. And yet it is.

Looking into abandoned wreck of small boat
Boat bones, Dungeness
Collection of plastic waste displayed outside house
Waste collection, Dungeness
Derek Jarman's house and front garden
Derek Jarman’s house and front garden

7 thoughts on “This isn’t England

  1. Great post, Alex. I was there recently myself, a visit that coincided with the hottest two days of the year. It is certainly an intriguing and very strange place. Did you see the sound mirrors? When we were there I noticed a large police presence – nothing to do with the power station but the anticipated arrival of migrants on rafts from France. Interesting what you say about the notices concerning photography and filming permits. In many ways, Dungeness reminds me of Orford Ness in Suffolk. Both places have become something of a brand, although that does not really distract from their unique character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lawrence – thank you and good to see you again. We must have been there at very similar times. Very hot, trains on go slow, we got there as early as possible before it got too hot. I thought the police were there as well as it looked calm across the channel so probably rights conditions to chance a crossing.

      I know exactly what you mean by branding. Dungeness is well famous beyond being an isolated corner of the south coast. I’ve meaning to go there for years because it is cult. I must try the Norfolk / Suffolk coast some day. Friends were there recently and loved it.


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