Tuesday, August 8, 2006
The Last Of England
This weekend, STML and l’amant headed down to the South Coast to enjoy the balmy English summer (ha!). One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Dungeness, the strange, other-worldy headland that juts out into the English channel from Romney marsh. Dungeness is Britain’s only desert, a shingle wasteland punctuated by strange plants and even stranger human interventions.
The twin Dungeness nuclear power stations are the most obvious of these: giant, humming boxes that divide the land and slice the sky into pyloned sections. But even they cannot subdue the landscape, and more impact is made by the two lighthouses erected to warn seafarers away from the treacherous, marshy point: rising out of the flat land, they signal at least some intention to transcend rather than subdue the flattened earth.
Scattered around these trig points are the homes of the small but diverse Dungeness community: a mix of fishermen and hermits, madmen and artists seeking the last areas of seclusion on the English coast. One of these is better known than many others: Prospect Cottage, the former home of artist, writer and filmmaker Derek Jarman.
Prospect Cottage is famous not only for its artistic associations and awe-inspiring setting, but for the garden that Jarman laid out in his later years, a exercise in natural sculpture that harmonises the bleak surroundings with the tenderness of home. In his journals, collected in Modern Nature, Jarman wrote:
Prospect Cottage, its timbers black with pitch, stands on the shingle at Dungeness. Built eighty years ago at the sea’s edge – one stormy night many years ago waves roared up to the front door, threatening to swallow it… Now the sea has retreated, leaving bands of shingle. You can see these clearly from the air: they fan out from the lighthouse at the tip of the Ness like contours on a map.
Prospect faces the rising sun across a road sparkling silver with sea mist. One small clump of dark green broom breaks throught the flat ochre shingle. Beyond, at the sea’s edge, are silhouetted a jumble of huts and fishing boats, and a brick kutch, long abandoned, which has sunk like a pillbox at a crazy angle; in it, many years ago, the fishermen’s nets were boiled in amber preservative.
There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon. In this desolate landscape the silence is broken only by the wind, and the gulls squabbling around the fishermen bringing in the afternoon catch.
There is more sunlight here than anywhere in Britain: this and the constant wind turn the shingle into a stony desert where only the toughest grasses take hold – paving the way for sage-green sea kale, blue bugloss, red poppy, yellow sedum.
The shingle is home to larks. In the spring I’ve counted as many as a dozen singing high above, lost in a blue sky. Flocks of greenfinches wheel past in spirals, caught in a scurrying breeze. At low tide the sea rolls back to reveal a wide sandbank, on which seabirds vanish like quicksilver as they fly close to the ground. Gulls feed alongside fishermen digging lug. When a winter storm blows up, cormorants skim the waves that roar along the Ness – throwing stones pell-mell along the steep bank.
The view from my kitchen at the back of the house is bounded to the left by the old Dungeness lighthouse, and the iron grey bulk of the nuclear reactor – in front of which dark green and gorse, bright with yellow flowers, have formed little islands in the shingle, ending in a scrubby copse of sallow and ash dwarfed and blasted by the gales.
In the middle of the copse is a barren pear tree that has struggled for a century to reach ten feet; underneath this is a carpet of violets. Gnarled dog roses guard this secret spot – where on a calm summer day meadow browns and blues congregate in their hundreds, floating past the spires of nettles thick with black tortoiseshell caterpillars.
High above a lone hawk hovers, while far away on the blue horizon the tall medieval tower of Lydd church, the cathedral of the marshes, comes and goes in the heat haze.
At the end of his last book before his death from AIDS, the polemical At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, Jarman (who has just been canonised on the beach by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence) writes:
I’m alone again. I sit watching the sun go down, peach as my grandmother’s table-cloth behind the nuclear power station. A great orange moon hangs over the sea and the winds die bringing in the night.
I am tired tonight. My eyes are out of focus, my body droops under the weight of the day, but as I leave you Queer lads let me leave you singing. I had to write of a sad time as a witness – not to cloud your smiles – please read the cares of the world that I have locked in these pages; and after, put this book aside and love. May you share of a better future, love without a care and remember we loved too. as the shadows closed in, the stars came out.
I am in love.
Apologies for the poor photographic skills, but you can see the full set of these photos of Dungeness at Flickr.
For those interested in visiting Dungeness and Prospect Cottage, it should be noted that the house still belongs to Jarman’s long-term partner and discretion should be observed at all times. There was no one at home the day we visited.