There is a definite appeal to visiting a desert. Their harshness and barrenness are issuing a challenge, daring you to venture into their lands and survive the journey. Countless adventurers have made trips in deserts and came back to tell the tale. Even more people live in deserts and thrive in their environment. I am not one of those people. I never thought I would set foot in the heart of a desert, let alone spend the night in one. But on the week-end of the 19th of September, I did. I went to Dungeness.
Dungeness is a headland on the coast of Kent, built by centuries of long-shore drift to become the large expanse of shingle we know today. It is an odd place. So odd, it is often referred to as a desert. It is largely dry in spite of being by the sea, and bears no high vegetation. But this is not the only thing setting it apart from the rest of the UK. It is an area of international conservation importance for the plants, invertebrates, and birds it hosts. As if this wasn’t enough, Dungeness is also home to two nuclear power stations. Both are now in their decommissioning phase but people still work there.
So I was quite excited when Pete, from the Cycle Tour Store, invited me to spend the week-end there to explore, share photo tips, and wild camp. We met up at Rye train station and cycled east, following National Cycle Route 2 on a lane parallel to the straight road, which was flanked by area of private water and fields occupied by sheep and birds. Leaving Camber was when the scenery began to transform, giving us a taste of what was to come. The land flattened, trees were replaced by the occasional bush, and houses took on an eerie feel, while in the distance wind turbines lazily spun in the faint breeze. We cycled past a jumble of houses, all of different shapes, adorned with ropes and their gardens filled with junk. On the other side, the sand dunes of Camber disappeared; replaced by fencing and machinery ready to build sea defences.
We eventually reached Lydd and the familiar rows of suburban houses. But soon, we veered south and entered the land of Dungeness. We were greeted by the first nuclear power station to be have been built on the shingles: Dungeness A. It is now defunct, its turbine hall was demolished in June of this year. We cycled past it, sparing it only a brief glance, eager to reach the end of the road. As we approached the coast, boat skeletons started to litter the beach, and black low houses sprung from the ground. From a distance they appeared – rectangular construction painted in tar, their windows bare slits in the walls. I felt like someone had dropped them in a hurry at a time when the fishing and energy industries thrived, and they had just been left behind once people had moved away to other jobs. Only this is not the case. Those houses are still inhabited today and Dungeness is popular among buyers. The shingle expanses are even home to one of the Living Architecture houses: Shingle House, designed by Nord Architects.
We left behind us the mismatch of ex-fishing huts and derelict railway carriages and climbed the wall of pebbles onto the beach in front of Dungeness B, the most recent power station. It is still active but has had the date of 2028 set for its accounting closure. We could hear the deep drum of the machinery inside, while in front of us the seawater was bubbling from the rejected scalding cooling water of the nuclear reactor. The water was clear but I half expected it to start glowing at any moment. Nothing. The water remained clear. We left the sea alone and headed back towards the buildings. We had a quick glance at the lighthouses but both of them were locked to visitors, so instead we decided to scout a spot for the night. It wasn’t hard to find in this barren land. Apart from the congregation of houses between the two lighthouses, there were no other signs of human life. We settled for an area sheltered by blackberries bushes. Happy with our choice Pete and I headed to the pub for a drink and a meal.
Night had fallen by the time we left the pub, and we had to push our bikes through the shingle with only our bike lights to show us the way. We set up camp in a matter of minutes, me spreading my bivvy bag on the ground while Pete pitched his tent. Once finished we sat down, sharing a bottle of wine that Pete had had the good sense to bring. As we talked about this and that my eyes kept drifting to the sky. Stars abounded above our heads – I was seeing the night sky as it truly is for the first time in years. Whichever way we looked on the horizon, the peachy glow of light pollution vanquished the darkness. The temperature began to drop as we reached the end of the wine, so we went to sleep lulled by the ever present drum of Dungeness B.
I opened my eyes at dawn, glimpsing a warm band of orange overtaking the horizon. Dawn was still too early to wake up, so I let myself drift back to sleep happy to have slept through to that time. When next I opened my eyes, the warmth of dawn has been replaced by the eeriness of mist blanketing the landscape. Everything was damp and soft-edged as we fired up Pete’s stove. We drank tea and ate our breakfast, watching the world slowly warm to the day. Once the sun had dried the dew, we finally packed up and pushed our bikes back to the road before exploring more by bike, stopping for impromptu photos lessons and a last look at this barren land before cycling off. But we were not quite finished with Dungeness – we wanted to find the monolithic 1930’s sound mirrors that had been designed and built to hear for slow approaching enemy aircraft before they could be seen; an early form of radar. Three of them are still erect, forming the Denge Complex on a former Royal Air Force base. We eventually located them but unfortunately a large expanse of water separated us from them. We remained on the shore, observing them from a distance; their acoustic remaining a mystery. We went back to the coast, taking a long break on a sand dune to enjoy what felt like the last summer day of the year, before heading back along the cycle route to Rye where we parted ways.
Sitting on the train back to London, I appreciated how desert-like Dungeness had been. People had tried to encroach on it with the fishing industry and later the energy industry, but the unique lands had fended against both. Dungeness’ current inhabitants were the last bastions in a deserted area that does not feel welcoming to humans.
This account was also published at pannier.cc. Thanks Stefan for accepting this story.