Dungeness, Prospect cottage & Hurricane Ophelia

Posted on October 22, 2017 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

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One early October weekend, I was checking the weather forecast on my iPad and it showed that Monday would be sunny. The symbol of the sun somehow triggered an urge in me to go to the seaside. I thought of visiting The Folkestone Triennial, but the photos of some contemporary art installations randomly (or not) placed around the seaside town did not really appeal to me. Then I thought of Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage in Dungeness – a National Nature Reserve that I have wanted to visit for years – and within the next hour, my day return train tickets to Rye were booked.

I had no idea how to get to Dungeness from Rye, and after some frantic search on the internet, I found out that I had to take 2 buses to get to this remote and desolate part of Kent.

 

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The Pilot Inn

 

On the day, with the help of a kind bus driver and a lovely elderly passenger, I arrived outside of The Pilot Inn in Dungeness around lunch time. The pub was surprisingly busy on a Monday afternoon, and after having their famous fish and chips, I began to ramble towards the sea. And soon I found myself alone on the beach. Where were all the people from the pub? It turned out that they all drove to the pub for lunch and left afterwards.

I have read a lot about Dungeness before I arrived, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw and felt while I was there. Dubbed "Britain's only desert" by the Met Office, the landscape here is truly unique. From the surface, the 468-acre nature estate appears to be barren, it is in fact home to 600 species of plants – a third of all plants found in the UK. And in 2015, the estate was sold to EDF Energy (which owns the nuclear power station on site) for more than £1.5m. And they had been paying up to £100,000 per year to use shingle to protect the power station from the sea!

Yes, I had expected to see a vast shingle beach, but I was surprised to see plenty of abandoned rusty machinery, a few old boats and even disused railway tracks scattered across the site. The rusty machinery on the shingle beach fascinated me, because they are like art installations (I was glad that I chose to spend the day in Dungeness rather than Folkestone), and I began to meander across the site following the trails of the machinery.

 

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During my first hour on the beach, I did not see a single person around. Although I enjoyed the solitude, it did feel slightly strange (perhaps I have lived in London for too long). Eventually I headed towards the sea, and despite the strong wind, the smell of the sea, and the sounds of waves and seagulls made me feel grateful to be so connected to nature.

 

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It is easy to lose track of time and bearing here. I somehow felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight zone. Beguiled by the surroundings, it suddenly dawned on me that time was slipping away and I needed to head towards Prospect Cottage – the purpose of this trip!

I am not sure why it took me so long to visit Derek Jarman's famous garden, especially because I learned about this place when I was still a student. It was my cousin who suggested that we should go and watch his feature-length film, The Garden, at the ICA. I remember the cinema was almost empty and we both nodded off during the film. However, after all these years, some imagery of the cottage and garden still remained in my memory.

 

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prospect's cottage

 

Twenty-three years after his death, the appeal of the multitalented British artist/filmmaker still endures. His garden book became a best-seller; his former cottage and garden became a mecca for gardeners, artists, designers, poets, and film buffs etc. This is not Stonehenge, so you will not see coaches of tourists flocking here. Instead, you are likely to meet individuals making their own pilgrimages to pay their respect to a visionary artist. In our trend-driven world today, Jarman's influence still lingers because he never followed trends; he only followed his heart and his garden reflects that.

Although this is a private property (now occupied by Jarman's former lover Keith Collins), visitors can walk around the garden and appreciate a distinct garden that truly unqiue. Maintained by Collins and Jarman’s good friend Howard Sooley, a gardener and photographer (of his book), the postmodern style garden blends exceedingly well with the dystopian surroundings.

 

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There is a poem on the black timber wall of his cottage from John Donne's 'The Sun Rising' and it reads:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
In that the world's contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

 

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Walking around the garden, it reminded me of the Zen gardens that I visited in Kyoto. The rusty installations, the rock circles, and choices of plants seem to capture the essence of wabi sabi. Inspired by dolmens, the garden's rustic style and laidback attitude reflect the director's distaste for perfectionism. In his garden book, he criticised The National Trust's gardens as being too manicured and said: "If a garden isn't shaggy, forget it."

While I was there, three cars stopped by (one after another) and coincidentally, three elderly ladies with cameras got out of the car and spend 5 minutes walking around taking photos while their husbands (I assumed) waited for them inside the cars. And as soon as the ladies got into the cars, they were off in no time. I thought this sequence was rather amusing.

 

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Walking away from the cottage, I was surprised (again) to pass by some rundown bungalows with abandoned furniture and suitcases scattered outside. Yet not far away, there are some intriguing contemporary houses like The Shingle House designed by a young Scottish practice, NORD for Living architecture which is available for holiday rental. Another holiday rental house is Pobble house designed by British architect Guy Hollaway. A recent addition is the North Vat by Rodić Davidson Architects, a shed-like structure that replaced the site's fisherman’s cottage.

There are also two lighthouses here, one is the Grade II listed Old Lighthouse opened in 1904, and a newer one built in 1961. The landscape here is full of contrasts, contradictions, and nothing seems to make much sense, but this is also the reason why it is so unique.

 

The Shingle House

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Top row: The Shingle House; 2nd row: Pobble House; 3rd row: North Vat

 

As I started to head backwards, the sun gradually turned bright orange and so did the sky. I was completely confused as it was only three o'clock and yet it looked as if the sun was setting. Seeing the nuclear power plant and lighthouses against the hazy orangy sky and sun made the landscape look even more surreal and apocalyptic. It was only later I learned that the unusual phenomenon was caused by Hurricane Ophelia pulling up Saharan dust, which was then reflected and refracted in longer wavelengths, giving an orange colour to the sun and sky.

 

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Could I have picked a better day to visit this desolate site? I couldn't believe my luck. The day felt like an adventure; it was memorable and full of pleasant surprises. I love Dungeness and will surely make another trip back to explore further afield.

 

 


This post was posted in Architecture, Travel, Nature, Gardens & parks, Britain and was tagged with nature, gardens, contemporary architecture, Dungeness, Kent, Derek Jarman, Prospect Cottage

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