The secret of Dungeness

I had just turned ten years old when my parents first took me to the remote shingle peninsula at Dungeness, on the south coast of England between Folkestone and Hastings.  It was during the half-term holidays of late October 1995, and we were staying with my Grandma in East Kent for a few days and, whilst there, taking day trips to various different attractions in the area.

“What’s at Dungeness?” I remember asking my parents, hoping that it was something like it sounded – a creepy ‘dungeon’ of sorts, where I might be able to find the witches and wizards I’d read about in all my childhood books.  A good place to visit around Halloween, perhaps?
“No dungeons.  The closest thing to a dungeon is the power station, but we’re really going there to have a look at Derek Jarman’s cottage”
“Who’s Derek Jarman?”, I asked, though I had already concluded that I was probably not going to be at all interested in the answer.
“He was a film director who lived in a cottage at Dungeness.  He made music videos for the Pet Shop Boys and had an interesting garden.”
Oh er, wowee.  The cynicism more commonly attributed to teenage years made a premature appearance that day.

I remember the day clearly.  My Nana and my 18 year old cousin, Matthew, came with us.  It had been a tight squeeze in the car, especially since on the way we had stopped in the nearby village of Tenterden in which Mum had decided it would be a good time to buy a new wicker laundry basket, which was fairly large and spent the rest of the journey in the back of the car, swapping between the laps of Mum and Matthew.  We listened to Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells II’  and I spent most of the trip chewing my way through a packet of blackcurrant flavour Hubba Bubba.  Limited edition, strange taste.  It’s safe to say I wasn’t anywhere near as enthused about Dungeness as the rest of my family were.  “There aren’t even any sweet shops” I sulked to myself in the back of the car, whilst everybody else crept around the cottage, peering into the windows and admiring the garden.  My parents hadn’t been lying when they said there wasn’t much at Dungeness.

Sixteen years on, there still isn’t, but growing older I realised that that was entirely the appeal.  We went back on average once every two years.     Coming all the way from Watford, we’d usually eat lunch in the Britannia Inn restaurant there.  Best scampi and chips I’ve ever had… and they always provided you with plenty of tartare sauce.   It’s hard to make a whole space of nothing sound attractive to anyone who has never been there.  It’s not pretty, it’s not vibrant and colourful.  It’s desolate and barren.  Black.   But, when you’re there, you feel a connection with the Earth that cannot be found in many other places. Dungeness, with it’s black power station looming over the peninsula, acres of shingle, a few beach-houses and bewildering iron sculptures is a haven for the creative or for those who just want to have a bit of respite from the rest of the world for an hour or so.  It’s safe to say the place attracts more visitors than there are visitor-attractions, because somehow the car-park of the Britannia is always full and Channel 4 even used the backdrop of the pylons in one of their idents a few years ago.  For somewhere that has so little, it seems to give so much.  Indeed, it’s a fabulous place, but only if you have an imagination.


Sunday 13th November 2011 and we are back in Dungeness.  It’s our first visit since moving to Kent and since it’s much closer, we can afford to stop at the quaint nearby village of Appledore along the way, and drink rose tea in an ornate tearoom painted in pale pink with decorative fine bone teacups hanging from the ceiling and on shelves.  In an antiques shop next door I am pleased to find a postcard of Lancaster, my student home in the North of England, from 1908.  The postcard had somehow made it’s way from Lancaster, all the way to Austria, and then back to Kent, in the South of England.  A lady called Alice writes to her friend Miss B.J Woolley who is out living in a convent in Austria:

“Nov 4th 1908:  Thank you so much for your good wishes dear.  Just this card to let you know I am going on all right.  I hope the Daily Mail reaches you each week, and that the paper ‘The Ladies’ Field’ which Ada sent you came safely to hand.  Much love, hoping you’re well.  Yours, Alice.” 

We leave Appledore, myself having taken lots of photos, and continue on to Dungeness.  It’s my first time going to Dungeness with a decent camera in tow and I revel in using the ‘Pin-Hole’ and ‘Film Grain’ special effects whilst photographing the random relics that make this such a special place.  As usual, the Britannia Inn is busy and the barren, shingle beach-front is dotted with various  weathered, iron-shaped relics sculpted by artists whom all saw something special in Dungeness.  I decide to head towards what looks like, but isn’t, a wooden abseiling wall about 300 meters away.  It looks somewhat out of place in such a flat, empty mass of stones.  Along the way I notice a sole page of newspaper flapping about in the coastal breeze.  It’s caught on a rock.  I’m captivated by the headline, “Floating Space Junk Hits Tipping Point”.  Even more intriguing is the date on the paper, ‘September 3rd 2011′.  It is over two months old yet still looks so recent, untouched by rain, it’s print as clear as when it was hot off the press.  I wonder if somebody placed it there on purpose for the benefit of an artistic photo, one I take advantage of as I crouch down with my camera and try and get a shot which isn’t imposed by my shadow.  Or, maybe it really has been there since September 3rd.  In an area so untouched, it would not be beyond reason.

As I head back to the car I spot a painting of an eye on the side of the road, and see it as another photo taking opportunity.  Upon closer inspection I notice that just behind it stands a wooden placard advertising a shop.  ‘Crystals, incense, tarot’ etc.  It’s obviously a very spiritual outlet, based in what looks like a 1980’s caravan, and it’s open every day of the week until 5pm.  I decide to take a look inside.  As I make my way along the path that leads to the shop I begin to sense a strange feeling, similar to the one I get just before entering a haunted house at the carnival.  A handwritten note in the window at the entrance strictly forbids photography inside the shop.  Eek.  I step through the colourful bead curtain in the doorway and suddenly feel as though I’ve finally found that dungeon I used to assume gave Dungeness it’s name! Or something like that anyway.  The space inside the shop is small and cramped, but every corner is covered with a variety of wacky and wonderful goods.  As I look around at all the plaster-cast models of witches, smell the fragrances of a million incense sticks and feel the tickle of feathers from the dream-catchers above my head I begin to feel a little uneasy.  There is nobody at the counter but behind a door I hear the sound of a couple of women laughing, or are they witches cackling?  I half-expect to see the corpse of a witch behind the counter and am quite pleased that the counter-clerk isn’t there,  with just the two of us in such a small building perhaps she’d want to make small talk.  I’m not sure I could manage small-talk with a potential witch!  Ironic, given what I’d been hoping for from my visit in 1995.  Despite my somewhat naive unease, I love this shop.  It’s interesting –  I’ve only encountered a shop like this once before, and that was all the way out in rural Tennessee – a remote hut in the middle of the mountains.  Here, you can almost see the spirituality dripping from the walls.   Spirituality is something I’ve only really taken an interest in over the past year and a half or so.  I’m much more open to the idea of the spiritual world.  There is no proof that it doesn’t exist, and I’d like to believe that there is definitely the potential for a spiritual energy out there,  enhancing our souls and channeling our energies into positive connections inside and out.  I definitely feel that connection sometimes, and I’m intrigued to know more.

I have two pounds in my purse and would quite like to buy something.  Two pounds isn’t enough for most of the items in the shop, but I see a tray of brightly coloured gemstones, each of which possess certain qualities, or so the labels attached to each tray say.  They are £1.10 each, within my budget, so I decide to buy one, and read each description to see which one would fit me the best.  I eventually decide to purchase a green aventurine, a smooth, rounded quartz pebble in a shade of muddy green.  It is a stone which is said to bring good fortune, clarity of mind and good adventures during travel.  It is also supposed to dissolve negative thoughts and emotions, and bring about peace within.  It is not the prettiest stone available, but it seems to possess the most appropriate of powers and so I decide to buy it.  At the very least, even if it does nothing for me, it will be a souvenir of this strange little shack of a shop.  By now, some other people have entered the shop and the noise of chatter has caused the shop owner to finally show her face.  She has pale skin, jet black hair in a bob, and knows these people well.  They discuss a previous purchase.  I take my little stone to the counter and also decide to buy a ‘lucky Chinese coin’ for 40p.   The counter-clerk gives me a wry smile.

“That’s £1.50 please”
I hand over three 50ps.  No change required.
“Thanks Soph” she says after taking the money.

I leave the shop and head back to the car.  Something the counter-clerk said has made me feel slightly uneasy.  I recall the dialogue again, in my head.
Wait a minute…

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