There’s a saying that Dungeness is the last place that God made, but that he forgot to finish it. This cuspate headland on the southeast Kent coast is Europe’s largest expanse of shingle. Its principal man-made features are a monolithic nuclear power station, a pair of priapic lighthouses, a miniature railway, and a scattering of cottages and weather-beaten fishing boats.
These disparate elements, emphasised by the Ness’s extreme flatness and wide-open horizons, seem haphazard and surreal. Small wonder it featured as a location in a 1970s Dr Who story.
Aeons of longshore drift joined this one-time island to the mainland. The lagoon of sea caught behind a shingle bank silted up and was later drained to form the wider Romney Marsh. Much of the land around here remains below sea level. And, although often referred to as a desert, Dungeness is in fact teaming with diverse, but fragile, plant and invertebrate communities. For this reason, it is designated as a National Nature Reserve, Special Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation.
Perhaps most remarkably, this isolated, wind-blown location has become a contemporary cultural landmark thanks to the modern history of Prospect Cottage. This early 20th-century fisherman’s dwelling was the home of the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman from 1987 until his death in 1994. The cottage was, according to Jarman, ‘the last of a long line of “escape houses” I started building as a child at the end of the garden.’
As a solace and distraction from being HIV positive, Jarman retreated to Prospect Cottage to make art and plant his own garden. Designed to survive in the harshest of conditions, this collection of hardy plants, carefully curated pebbles and stones, and enigmatic sculptures crafted from driftwood and scrap metal, was ahead of its time. It has been an inspiration to subsequent generations of gardeners.
(It was while on an outing to Dungeness in June 1990 that the renowned British horticulturists Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd came across the cottage and chatted to Jarman about his gardening methods and plantings. Chatto, a star of the Chelsea Flower Show, was particularly impressed and would later seek advice from Jarman as she set about creating her own gravel garden – now world-famous – at her home in Great Elmstead, Essex.)
I have long been fascinated by Prospect Cottage and its garden, and have made frequent pilgrimages to Dungeness since moving to nearby Folkestone in 2015. At this southern edge of Romney Marsh – a place of maritime danger and natural wonder, known, only-half jokingly, as the Fifth Continent – I come to immerse myself in the mercurial environment, to dig deeper into its multi-layered history and to savour its solitary atmosphere.
It’s early April, the sun is beaming down after a long winter, and there’s a sense of anticipation at the Hythe station of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RHDR). A small crowd has gathered to welcome back the newly overhauled Doctor Syn on its first public outing in five years. Chugging into the station, trailing candy-floss clouds of steam, this one-third scale, Canadian-Pacific-style steam locomotive gleams handsomely in its boot-polish black and brass livery.
Extracting himself from the diminutive engine cab is train driver Mark Lane. Looking dapper in a black cap with a red kerchief knotted around his neck, Lane has maintained and driven the venerable Doctor Syn since 2010. ‘I must have done over 100,000 miles on it before its service,’ he tells me of this black beauty named after the 18th-century vicar/smuggler hero of a series of novels by Russell Thorndike that are set in nearby Dymchurch.
That old-fashioned coastal resort is the first stop along the 15-inch gauge track that runs for 13½ miles between Hythe and Dungeness. This ‘Kent mainline in miniature’ was the dream project of racing driver Count Louis Zborowski (whose racing car, named Chitty Bang Bang, inspired Ian Fleming’s children’s book of the same name) and an eccentric Edwardian millionaire and fellow speedster Captain J E P Howey.
Killed while racing in the Italian Grand Prix, Zborowski never lived to see the railway open in 1927. The RHDR’s immediate popularity saw the line extended from New Romney to Dungeness the following year. In those pre-World War II years, it became famous as the ‘smallest public railway in the world’. Following Howey’s death in 1963, the RHDR’s fate looked bleak, until a consortium headed up by railway enthusiast Sir William McAlpine came to the rescue in 1973. Today a fleet of 11 vintage steam engines and two diesel locomotives are the pride and joy of a much-loved operation with 35 paid staff and 95 dedicated volunteers.
At a little after 9.15am, with a long toot on its steam whistle, Doctor Syn begins its journey towards Dungeness. If proof is needed of the special place that the railway has in locals’ hearts, it’s provided by the parade of people who show up along the track or stand in their back gardens waving and photographing the train as it rattles by.
Chugging along at a leisurely speed of no more than 20 miles per hour, the RHDR is the ideal way to take in the surrounding sights. Romney Marsh’s pancake-flat fields, etched with dykes and drainage channels (known locally as sewers) and grazed by flocks of sheep, hold many curiosities and surprises, including Alpaca Annie’s herd of fluffy alpacas on Haguelands Farm, shortly before Dymchurch station.
The service I’m on is not stopping at Dymchurch, home to one of Kent’s best beaches. The town was a smuggling hotspot during the 17th and 18th centuries, with the biannual Day of Syn playing up to this notoriety. The pageant, which sees Dymchurch thronged by costumed revellers re-enacting smuggler battles and trials, has been a fixture of the August bank holiday since 1964.
Doctor Syn does briefly pause at New Romney, the RHDR headquarters that’s home to its engineering works, train sheds, heritage centre and model railway exhibition. Captain Howey’s ashes were scattered at the station and just beyond the 24-lever signal box is Red Tiles, the house that he built so that he could live close to his railway.
Lane and engineering manager Richard Featherstone make checks around the locomotive, lubricating its moving parts and stoking the engine with Welsh coal. Among the fans on the platform is a character wearing a red fez, studded with pins in the shape of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. By way of explanation, ‘Mad Paul’ tells me how the Hollywood legends dropped by the station in 1947 to cut the ribbon for the reopening of the line to Dungeness.
Another blast on the steam whistle and Doctor Syn chugs off for the final leg of the journey. Punctuating the horizon to the west across Denge Marsh are the wind turbines at Little Cheyne Court and the bell tower of All Saints Church at Lydd. One of Romney Marsh’s collection of characterful medieval churches, All Saints incorporates a fragment of Roman basilica dating to the late 5th century. Nearby, but hidden from view as we pass through Romney Sands station, are the tussocky dunes of Greatstone. West of the station, shielded by the chalets and caravans of the Romney Sands Holiday Park, sit the Denge Sound Mirrors. Built between 1928 and 1935, these giant concrete listening ears became obsolete when radar was invented. They are now protected as part of the RSPB Dungeness Nature Reserve.
A few minutes later the train emerges from its narrow corridor between the homes at Lydd-on-Sea to the panoramic vistas of Dungeness. Tracing a graceful arc, Doctor Syn pulls into the terminus. Here, station manager Stephen Waters tells me that visitors often ask where to find ‘the film-man’s garden’.
Before heading there myself, the sunny weather tempts me to take in the amazing views from the top of the old lighthouse opposite. Since 1615, eight lighthouses have been erected at Dungeness, and this one, completed in 1904 and in use until 1960, was the fourth to guide sailors around this treacherous promontory.
From the lighthouse balcony, 150ft above ground, the RHDR looks even more like a toy train set. The elevated perspective does little to diminish the looming menace of the nuclear power station, which is in the process of being slowly decommissioned. I can also see directly into another Dungeness garden – that within the wall-sheltered base of what was once the third lighthouse. Jarman was not the first resident of Dungeness to find a way of gardening in this unpromising terrain.
In fact, Dungeness Nature Reserve is home to some 600 species of vegetation, an incredible third of all plants found in the UK. Through the shingle naturally burst glaucus sprays of sea kale and the buttery yellow flowers of dwarf broom bushes. Around Dungeness Open Studios – the home, studio and gallery of artist Paddy Hamilton – I spot wallflowers and grape hyacinths.
Hamilton has lived at Dungeness for over 20 years. In that time, he’s nurtured his own remarkable garden around an artful group of buildings, including a chicken coop built in 1886, an old winch house and a shed once used to store shrimps and fish bait. Here, too,
is one of the 30 old train carriages, converted by railway workers into their homes in the 1920s, which are still located across the Dungeness estate.
Don’t be fooled, however, by the rustic, ramshackle look of Dungeness. Only two fishing families remain in the hamlet and most properties on the estate are now holiday homes, with a particularly stylishly converted railway carriage selling for £425,000 in 2021.
The price tag on Prospect Cottage, and all its contents, was £3.5 million following the death of Keith Collins in 2018; Collins was Jarman’s close companion in his final years, and it was to him that he bequeathed the property. In 2020, a successful crowdfunding campaign secured Prospect Cottage for the nation. It also created an endowment, to conserve and maintain the building, its contents and the garden in perpetuity.
Creative Folkestone has been appointed the cottage’s custodian and now runs residencies here as well as small-group guided visits inside to view Jarman’s artworks and personal belongings. Nearly 30 years may have passed since his death, but everything you see – from Jarman’s tactile tar paintings and props used in his films, to the driftwood sculptures and rosaries of hag stones – speak of his imaginative, iconoclastic life.
As I approach the iconic pitch-black building with its distinctive yellow painted window frames and door, and gable end inscribed with a poem by John Donne, I can see a small team of people tending to the garden. By happy chance, I’m here on one of the three annual volunteer days arranged by Jonny Bruce, the garden’s long-time caretaker. ‘I also try to come once a month for a couple of days,’ says Bruce, ‘but the garden was always designed to be low maintenance.’
Bruce first learned about Prospect Cottage after receiving a gift of Jarman’s book Modern Nature from his mother when he was studying art history at Cambridge. Later, while working at nearby Great Dixter, he began to assist Collins with the garden. ‘We maintain it in the spirit of Jarman and Collins without being too constrained by the history of the place,’ he says before returning to weeding around a rusted anchor chain shaped into a circle on the shingle.
In two months, the garden’s muted palate of mottled browns and greys will be augmented by the blaze of wildflowers that transform Dungeness into a pointillist painting of colourful dots. Orange and red California poppies, blue echiums and magenta foxgloves will be the floral stars in Derek’s beautiful garden. As I stroll away, ready for lunch at the nearby Dungeness Snack Shack, I can’t help but agree with my partner Steve that this place is ‘magical in the weirdest way possible’.
Need to know
Getting there: The most convenient mainline trains stations are Ashford International, Folkestone and Rye, from where buses run to Hythe, New Romney and Dungeness.
Best time to go: From early April you’re likely to spot newly born lambs gambolling in Romney Marsh’s fields. The end of May into early June is best for flower displays at Dungeness.
Currency: Pound sterling
Time zone: GMT
Food: Heaven on a plate is a grilled scallop bun from the Dungeness Snack Shack (dungenesssnackshack.net), operating out of a converted shipping container. The Pilot Inn (thepilotdungeness.co.uk) at Lydd-on-Sea is also famous for its fish and chips.
Where to stay: Bloom Stays (bloomstays.com) represents several of the Dungeness’s most unique self-catering holiday cottages, including a converted 1950s coastguard tower and the contemporary-styled Pump Station.
How to do it: Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (rhdr.org.uk) trains run year-round, but only daily from the end of March to the end of September. See Creative Folkestone (creativefolkestone.org.uk/prospect-cottage) for details of Prospect Cottage tours.
Must-pack item: Everywhere Means Something to Someone – The People’s Guidebook to Romney Marsh (strangecargo.org.uk) brings the region alive.
Why go: When it comes to extraordinary British landscapes with incredible histories and rich biodiversity, it’s hard to beat Dungeness.