We arrived at the spot we’d planned to spend the night and were immediately concerned. Columns of black smoke appeared to be rising from the ground all around the nature reserve we had chosen to stop in. On closer inspection it turned out not to be smoke but insects. Thousands, millions probably, of insects rising in great plumes. A few landed on the windows, attracted by the light. They were big and scary looking.
“Erm, not sure stopping for the night in the middle of an alien insect invasion is a good idea?”
The question hung in the air as we sat looking at other options for somewhere to park. But suddenly and to our surprise the insects disappeared. Just like that, as if the “No Insects” switch had been flicked, the end of the insect working day.
“Well, that was weird.”
Weird. It was a word that would sum up the whole weekend, but weird isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Parked up just outside of Dungeness, we were in the UK’s only desert. Some of its highlights include two lighthouses, a nature reserve, an RSPB centre, a narrow gauge railway, a small town of mostly wooden buildings and a pub that closes at half past eight of a Saturday.
It was near the RSPB centre that we were camped. Around ten in the evening the police turned up. “Here we go” we thought, but no, they circled the gravel car park, gave us a cheery wave and left. We heard them again later, it’s quite nice to have your own security patrol. Even the group of lads who turned up later in the evening parked a respectable distance away. Things were looking up.
The shingle flatlands of Dungeness provide a unique habitat for large numbers of plants, birds and animals. A day spent at the RSPB reserve rewarded us with several magical moments. Birds of prey got so close to the hides that you could almost feel the wind from their beating wings. We ooh’d and ahh’d and the coot chicks and ducklings. We listened to the cuckoos, though they remained hidden from sight.
We got our first view of the train that runs along the narrow gauge railway as we stopped in nearby Lydd-on-Sea to pick up some food to cook for dinner. The engineer, tightly ensconced in his locomotive, tooted his steam whistle as his train emerged from between the suburban gardens and rattled across one of the many level crossings. Over the weekend we noticed three different trains running, two steam locomotives and a diesel, all miniature versions but capable of pulling large numbers of tourist filled carriages.
Being a headland, and a constantly changing one at that, Dungeness has long been the site of a lighthouse. The first lighthouses were built here with a plan to charge passing ships for safe passage but collecting the toll proved problematic and the scheme soon failed. Currently there are two lighthouses, the old and the new. The old lighthouse, built in 1904, is no longer in use and is purely a tourist attraction. It was replaced in 1961 by the new lighthouse, required because the nearby power station obstructed the beacon of the older lighthouse.
It was next to the old lighthouse that we camped for our second night in the area.
We had planned to go for a quick pint in Dungeness’s only pub and braved the light rain to find it closes quite early, relying on daytime trade only. It’s not surprising really, the area is sparsely populated and there is not much in the way of passing trade in the evening. We weren’t alone though, a few other vans were parked up for night and there were many people fishing from the steep shingle beach, their lines disappearing into the murky sea.
Climbing the 169 steps to the top of the old lighthouse brings a view over the vast flat landscape. It’s got an almost eerie feel and from this height it even feels slightly abandoned and it’s clear that not all the houses are occupied full time.
But there is life here and it’s quite vibrant. Someone is working on an old Airstream caravan. People are living in the old Coastguard lookout tower. Artists sell their work from shed like houses, with bright and kooky installations to tempt you in. Trawlers are dragged up the beach by tractors and fishermen land their catches and smoke them there and then, the smoked fish sold from little huts by the road. It’s an incredibly photogenic landscape.
There’s rememberance here too, hidden in the scrubland we find a makeshift monument to two Polish spitfire pilots killed nearby during WWII.
And behind it all, the power station sits, gently humming to itself twenty four hours a day.