I love going on day trips from Brighton. So far, I’ve taken you in search of unique and unusual discoveries in the pretty town of Lewes 20 minutes from Brighton, and Hastings 40 minutes west from Brighton on the East Sussex. Today, in the interest of learning something new, I’m taking you on a day trip to Dungeness in Kent, a unique and unusual destination in itself, often referred to as the English desert for its otherworldly landscape. In fact, there’s no-where quite like Dungeness, a long stretch of undeveloped coastline at the southern tip of Kent around 90 minutes from Brighton or London.
day trip to Dungeness, Kent
With its scattering of ramshackle wooden cottage-like buildings, what looks like an abandoned railway line, two lighthouses, fishing boats, and the ominous presence of two gigantic nuclear power stations in the near distance, it’s easy to think Dungeness looks more like a forgotten Wild West ghost town, or the setting for a story of apocalyptic survival, than a coastal area in England.
It’s referred to as a desert because in Dungeness the landscape is unusually dry, despite being surrounded by the sea and several man-made lakes. It’s essentially the largest stretch of shingle in the UK and it’s getting bigger day by day as the sea continues to recede further back, leaving a build-up of sand and stone. Numerous lighthouses have had to be re-built over the centuries to keep up with the shoreline. What’s surprising is that despite being recognised as a desert, it’s home to large nature reserve with over 600 different types of plant: a third of all those found in Britain apparently, and a bird observatory.
Keen to discover this otherworldly gem, we left Brighton at 8am and arrive nice and early, parking up on Dungeness Road near the Lifeboat station. The settlement is located around an area of headland which we approach from the east, so we decide to walk up and around to the west and back down. Getting out the car, I take a moment to observe my surroundings. I’m not sure where I feel I am, but I don’t feel like I’m in England. It feels like an eerie film set. The landscape is strangely flat, desolate, shingle-heavy, but alluring.
The scattered collection of buildings in Dungeness includes around 30 small wooden houses built around old railway carriages, I’d read lots about and spot not before long. They’re a reminder of a time when the Lydd Railway Company had a station here, which closed after 50 years as the population of Dungeness didn’t grow enough to justify running it.
When it closed, redundant workers were given the opportunity to buy the abandoned carriages which they just pulled on to the shingle and turned into homes. Apparently, one of these railway carriages was thought to be one of six rolling stock built in 1885, for Queen Victoria’s entourage.
If you look closely at the house on the right in the above photo, you can just make out the original carriage inside, which has been built around. I learned the house is called Seabreeze when I discovered it listed for sale in 2018 on The Modern House website, which also shows photos of the inside, complete with a log burner!
You can see how it’s been built around and extended, so there’s more room.
As well as all the fascinating railway houses, I’m also drawn to the Victorian wooden cottages like this cute pink one, called Ocean View. It belonging to an artist called Helen who rents out during the summer on AirBnB (see the listing, here). She also has a little studio and gallery next door, which anyone is welcome to visit.
These cottages were originally occupied by local fisherman and later on people who wanted to escape society, like bohemian artists, experimental film makers, writers and poets, like the English director, stage designer and gay rights activist, Derek Jarman, who lived in Prospect Cottage, probably the most well-known property in Dungeness, painted black with canary yellow woodwork. He bought it in 1987, and lived there until he died in 1994.
In complete contrast to the quaint cottages, Dungeness is also home to a number of imposing functional buildings, many of which have been converted into homes, like this four-storey tower in the distance, not far from the row of railway cottages we head towards. After a bit of investigation I find out that it’s a former 1950s radar monitoring station available for holiday lets (see the listing here).
It was built in 1905 for shipping in the English Channel, decommissioned in around 2000 following the arrival of GPS. When the owners bought it, the four-storey block sandwiched between the two lighthouses came with its own oil-fired generator, lifejackets and rescue equipment and even a poster informing what to do in the event of a nuclear disaster.
Minds boggling… this brings us nicely to the power stations. There are two of them – Dungeness A Power Station built in 1965 but decommissioned; and Dungeness B Power Station built in the 1980s, which is in the process of being decommissioned as of June 2021. Although we didn’t organise it, Dungeness B Power Station has an award-winning visitor centre which sounds fascinating. On a visit, you find out how the power station works in an interactive exhibition zone before having a guided site tour.
The Old Lighthouse isn’t far from here, decomissioned and now a museum and view pint. Without a head for heights, I don’t go up, even though I’m tempted to know what it would be like to see across this otherworldly landscape. Instead I head over the road to learn about what lays claim to be England’s smallest public train line, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, which we bookmark for our next visit. Apparently, it was built in 1927 by Captain JEP Howey, an occasional racing driver, millionaire landowner, former Army Officer and miniature railway aficionado and Count Louis Zborowski, an eminently well-known racing driver of his day, famous for owning and racing the Chitty Bang Bang Mercedes and considerably richer, even, than Howey.
As if the mix of things to do in Dungeness couldn’t get more eclectic, further up on the west-side beach, we find two delightful artists’ studios, free to browse, not a soul insight. They’re open all year and run by the artist Paddy Hamilton, who has extensive experience of solo and collaborative shows and events, curating and managing exhibitions and producing commissioned work on given themes.
On our way back to the car, we take ages meandering the boardwalk which takes us down to the water’s edge where we sit watching hobby fishermen at work and spot some Dolphins playing in the waves. We’re here so long the weather takes a weird, sinister turn which only adds to the apocalyptic atmosphere.
Luckily though it doesn’t rain and we find the pot of gold at the end of the Dungeness rainbow: the Snack Shack. This tiny takeaway cafe serving succulent fishy goodies, like succulent lobster rolls and flaky crab meat flat breads, all of it using fish they catch off the coast using their own fishing boats. Just after we’ve ordered, a huge queue forms. As we wait for our food, we ponder our day out, noticing organised people armed with wine and blankets who must have done this before. It’s a perfect end to a magical day in the English desert.
I hope you enjoyed your surreal day trip to Dungeness!