Modern Nature at Dungeness

I feel this is a suitably bleak location for a first entry in this log.

Research we undertook as part of a module before Christmas led a friend and myself to become interested and almost obsessed with Dungeness and the life of Derek Jarman. I had heard of Derek Jarman before and had seen pictures of his garden set in the bizarre landscape of Dungeness which is what made me so keen to research this topic.

Derek Jarman was an influential film maker and writer. We were researching his remarkable garden he created outside his home on Dungeness, a large shingle cuspate foreland that reaches out towards France on the southeast of England. 

Over the Easter break I headed south to explore this garden and its peculiar surroundings…

The front garden of Prospect Cottage

Jarman created the garden by accident. It was developed from and as a response to its harsh environment. Large flints collected from the beach create a border outside the cottage window and slowly objects washed up on the shore become repurposed to create the garden.

The garden is roughly structured, to the front it has a sense of formality with upright pebbles demarking the edge of shapes and changes in texture. The planting feels rugged and is clumped together offering a small amount of protection from the unforgiving weather. Towards the back of the house the garden becomes less formal and playful arrangements of plants combined with objects that he has collected from the beach arranged in a thought out way that creates almost a scene.

To the rear of Prospect Cottage

This garden is a wonderful demonstration that plant communities can thrive even in the most challenging conditions. It has been created to compliment the experience out on the ness the wild and scruffy appearance feels as though it belongs here. 

It is simply a more intensified, stylised version of the wild plant communities that surround it

Thomas Rainier and Claudia West – Planting in a Post-Wild World

My take from this is; what sets Jarman’s garden apart from others is that his garden has no drawn up plans or technical specifications. It is an ongoing discovery by himself and nature. Through this garden, we are able to share some of the journeys with him begin to understand the complex and creative life of this man.

Out on the ness

Whilst it was Derek Jarman’s garden drew me to Dungeness I felt compelled to explore the same shingle beaches he did and discover for myself the magic of this bizarre place. 

I think my first thought about Dungeness was that there was nothing there, when looking at pictures it looks like endless shingle and the occasional lighthouse but the closer you look at the place the richer it becomes. 

The plant life here is fascinating, through one of Jarman’s books, The Garden, he introduced me to sea kale (Crambe maritima) which grows in clumps in the shingle and has thick waxy grey-green leaves. I particually enjoy how this plant feels, it almost bounces when you touch the leaves and the whole plant feels rugged and suited to the challenges faced by the location. You can eat sea kale how you would eat cabbage however, at Dungeness it’s not recommended with such proximity to the nuclear power station.

Crambe maritima, within the shingle

The way plant communities have adapted on the ness is fascinating. They range from ephemeral communities right above the tidemark that consists almost entirely of a hardy annual plant called Orache that appears as a green haze over the shingle. Orache has a quick life cycle and is washed away in the first autumn storm. As you move inland you find a pioneer community where individual clumps of plants grow separated by large areas of shingle. These clumps bind the shingle and some soil begins to build up. Then, even further from the sea you find a mosaic of bare shingle and vegetation much more diverse than the previous communities. Finally, in the most landward zone you find the established community which is much more sheltered and the most diverse.

The horizon is interrupted by the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. Enormous boxes of scientific wizardry that keep our lights on and our kettles brewing are perched right on the edge of our little island. Standing so close to what Jarman would call the Emerald City with its disconcerting glow and colossal scale make you feel insignificant. The pylons and wires emerge from the compound towards the rest of the country create this unusual feeling of connectedness. 

The nuclear power station

In places Dungeness is a mess. It is not a destination that is looked after and groomed for the benefit of tourism it is a working landscape. The shore is lined with fishing vessels and littered with discarded nets and metal objects, the cottages are home to those who make a living off the sea. As a visitor, you feel like you have landed into the everyday lives of ordinary people.

The discarded nets

There is so much more I could write about this place but will, for the time being, leave it at that. The lengthy drive was worth it to experience such a surreal place and I plan on returning again for another explore. Later that week I watched ‘The Garden’ by Derek Jarman, just like the ness it has an intriguing atmosphere.

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