“Don’t go to Dungeness, it’s bleak as hell and everyone lives in sheds.”
These were the words spoken to me by the barman of a hotel in Rye, East Sussex, when I mentioned that I was planning to visit the Dungeness on the last day of my holiday. I feel that these sort of vaguely negative generalizations about anywhere other than exactly where you live are an essential part of English culture. I wouldn’t normally reproduce such remarks, except said barman quickly backed it up with an assurance that he had lived there for nine years. Possibly he had a point.
Despite the warning, less than twelve hours later I was rattling along the edge of the Kent foreshore on one of England’s less comfortable regional bus rides. I was the only passenger to alight at the Pilot Inn on the fringe of Dungeness.
I load the Yashica Mat with a roll of Ilford Ortho film. It’s a bright day on a giant beach and there’s such a richness of textures. It’s crying out for a low ISO film, and Ortho Plus is the only film of which I’m carrying more than one roll.
Regardless of whether or not Dungeness is bleak, it certainly is an oddity. One of Europe’s largest expanses of shingle (land, typically a beach, which is made up of pebbles rather than the more common sand) it’s often described as Britain’s only desert. The meteorological office denies this, and whilst Dungeness may not technically be a desert, to a casual passer-by it certainly has the feeling of one. Vast swathes of empty shingle with little conventional flora and fauna to break up the landscape.
It’s also home to two lighthouses and a giant nuclear power station, and these three battle for the title of Dungeness’ dominant feature. Fleets of fishing boats past and present litter the shingle beach, along with tens of rusted winches. Post apocalyptic is probably an unkind term to use. I think the people of Dungeness wouldn’t notice the apocalypse, maybe partly due to the existing look of the place, but mainly because I imagine they wouldn’t want to be bothered by such outside business. They’d rather just continue life amongst the shingle.
There is just one road through Dungeness. It’s a private estate. At the start of the road there’s a huge sign listing the estate rules including ‘no filming or professional photography.’ I muse over how I’d prove my amateur status if challenged. Show them a portfolio of distinctly average photos? Explain that a full understanding of the zone system eludes me? Point to the lack of a huge commercial market for sub-par black and white architectural photos?
Thankfully I remain unchallenged, and further research points to the fact that ban comes from a history of photographers who’ve turned up with tripods, lighting, models, and who offload and set all this up in gardens of homes, on the protected habitat of the shingle, and the boats. I resolve not to be this kind of photographer, partly because if you come to an area specifically to photograph it and care little about irritating the locals you’re probably a bad photographer. More precisely, you’re definitely a bad person.
For all the weird and wonderful things in Dungeness I end up drawn to the houses, the aforementioned sheds. There are very few substantial brick built buildings in Dungeness. I counted one cottage, the lifeboat station, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the nuclear power station and lighthouses.
The remainder of the buildings are an eclectic mix of weather-boarded huts, small shacks built around a brick chimney, and old railway carriages converted into ramshackle dwellings. Given Dungeness is dead flat and suffers near constant buffeting by the fierce winds off the English Channel it’s something of a miracle that these houses manage to cling on to the Shingle.
It seems like many of Dungeness’ residents have made Dungeness home because it offers an escape from the pressures of the outside world. Residents range from artists, to the last defiant fishermen of the Dungeness fishing fleet. Certainly it’s unlike much of the outside world, and the bustle that creeps over much of South East England is distinctly absent.
But, like so many interesting places, Dungeness is changing. I briefly passed through seven years ago and since then there’s been a small influx of architecturally avant-garde takes on the Dungeness shack. Sturdier, bolder, unquestionably more expensive, they’re clearly tailored to a newer more bourgeois kind of resident. That feels a shame. Part of living somewhere like Dungeness means putting up with its privations, but then I suppose money lets you opt out of privations.
Photographing the houses is not without its challenges. I don’t want to be invasive and get too close, nor do I want every house to be a tiny speck. I’m also half expecting an estate manager to barrel along in a battered pickup and ask me just what I think I’m doing taking photographs. At which point I suppose I’ll have to flail and protest desperately that I’m an amateur. I must be. I don’t even have Squarespace website.
I make it to the foot of the old lighthouse and the approach to the nuclear power station and decide that lunch is in order. I nip into the Britannia Inn, the only pub in Dungeness proper, which happily has both a roaring fire and a rather excellent crab salad on the menu. It’s a sunny but cold early spring day and other patrons are a bit thin on the ground, but the experience is still a pleasant one.
After lunch I continue to amble round, photographing the power station and lighthouses, before heading back along Dungeness’ one and only road. I reach the Pilot Inn again, and wait fifteen minutes for the bus back to Rye. I’m still trying to work out my feelings on Dungeness. I can see why it seems to fascinate people. It’s quite unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Britain.
Perhaps my own thoughts on Dungeness are slightly academic. For the people who call the shingle home, it certainly holds a special charm. Whatever my own thoughts might be, I hope that those who live there can continue their existence in their shacks. It might be a bold choice, but I’ve got a small window into why they’ve made it. Will I be moving? I doubt I could afford it these days anyway.
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Today’s Guest Post was submitted by…
Jacob Downey, an amateur photographer living in South West England. After re-discovering both photography and film in early 2019 he’s been working his way through a steady stream of rolls since then, usually filled with architecture, industrial heritage and seaside towns.
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