a rowing boat and a cottage
England, Europe

A Day at Dungeness – the only desert in England

I’ve spent a day at Dungeness a few times in my life, but my hazy childhood memories of this little village in Kent all paint a rather bleak picture. Tiny ramshackle cottages dotted across a vast expanse of shingle, a nuclear power station looming in the distance, and a sky that’s consistently a wash of white.

Let’s face it guys, there aren’t many places that look exciting against a drab white English sky, are there?

Last week I revisited the coastal village of Dungeness armed with a camera, a thermos of coffee, and my Birminan (that’s my Nan-from-Birmingham btw). And amazingly, although I already knew that Dungeness is one of the most unique villages in Kent, I also discovered that in Summer it is absolutely BEAUTIFUL.

fishing in Dungeness
a rowing boat and a cottage
a day at Dungeness

Driving to Dungeness

As we drove along the flat road towards Dungeness beach, we were surrounded on both sides with beautiful wildflowers swaying in the breeze; bursts of colour against the vast expanse of pebbles. Red and orange poppies, fields of tiny blue flowers, and clusters of sea kale. Against the vivid blue sky this was frankly already enough to take my breath away.

The one road that leads through the hamlet is lined with a mixture of clapboard cottages, (some of which look they’ve seen better days), disused railway carriages which have been transformed into houses, and bizarre architectural gems where Londoners come to get away from the city. And far away across the desolate expanse of shingle beach lie even more Dungeness cottages, all completely isolated from one another. Between these are abandoned fishing boats in various stages of disrepair.

In winter the atmosphere can be creepy. But in Summer I was absolutely enchanted, and loving every second of it.

a day at Dungeness
hand painted sign

Dungeness Power Station

Far off in the distance we could see the squat solid form of Dungeness Power Station, power lines crisscrossing the flat expanse. I’ve always thought it’s kind of bizarre to have built a nuclear power station right next to a protected nature reserve, let alone in amongst houses where people live.

It just doesn’t seem like the safest location for a family home, (or any home). Know what I’m saying!?

But plenty of people do choose to live here next to the hum.

‘The boil’ or ‘the patch’ is an area just off the coast, where Dungeness Power Station pumps excess hot water and sewage into the sea, weirdly enriching the biological productivity and attracting all the sea birds to come and tuck in.

Fishing is also hugely popular in Dungeness, and so far I’m happy to report that despite the nuclear presence, no three-eyed fish have been either caught or spotted.

What a relief.

the Old Lighthouse at Dungeness

Fish and chips in Dungeness

It goes without saying that on any trip to an English seaside town, you have to try the local fish and chips. It just wouldn’t be right not to.

A lady whose lipstick matched her nails (an extremely metallic frosted pink) took our order through the window of the Britannia Inn, and we set up our blankets beside the pub amongst a small spread out collection of other day-trippers who had come for a day in Dungeness. Obviously the whole Covid-19 situation won’t go on forever, but the upside-down picnic benches and taped-off chairs seem almost normal now, don’t they? Especially in Dungeness, where isolation has pretty much always been the normality.

The nearby Pilot Inn is also open for takeaways, although the Dungeness Snack Shack was still closed to outsiders. The Snack Shack usually sells fish and seafood which has been freshly caught with its two fishing boats that very morning- and if it tastes as good as it looks, you’ll be in for a right treat. Understandably with the world only just starting to open up again, the folk of this little blue hut didn’t want to lure swathes of visitors to Dungeness too soon, so remain closed for the near future.

the snack shack

The lighthouses

The weird thing about Dungeness (as if there’s only one weird thing about Dungeness) is that the mass of land is consistently moving and changing in size. In fact the beach is moving ever so slightly closer to France every single year; and on a clear day it’s possible to see the French coast as you stand on Dungeness Beach.

The first Dungeness lighthouse was built here in 1615 after too many shipwrecks in the area. But as time wore on, the sea kept on receding, and the lighthouse was too far from the shore to be of any use. I mean, what’s the point of a lighthouse which is too far away for sailors to see, you know!?

The sea has continued to recede as it pushes more shingle inland, meaning that so far a total of five lighthouses have been built at Dungeness, with only one remaining in operation. The tall skinny black and white lighthouse from the 1960s is still going, and the most recently used Old Lighthouse is now painted black to avoid any confusion between the two.

(If you fancy visiting the Old Lighthouse, it’s normally possible to go inside, for a mere £4 entry fee. And if you fancy getting married in a lighthouse- it’s possible here too! Just FYI.)

Another seaside day out: A Day Trip to Brighton, England
Dungeness lighthouse
view of Dungeness in Kent

Why is Dungeness a desert?

The village of Dungeness (in fact, it’s so tiny that it’s more of a hamlet than a village), sits on a gargantuan shingle foreland jutting out into the English Channel. In fact this massive patch of shingle is one of the largest in the whole of Europe, and is home to hundreds of different types of plants, insects and birds. There’s so much rare wildlife here that the area is home to a nature reserve, which contains some species which can’t be found anywhere else in the entire world.

Which is quite crazy when you think about it.

But what about the whole ‘Dungeness is a desert’ thing? Classification as a desert is actually dependent on the level of rainfall in an area, not the quantity of sand. Who knew!? So, the Sahara is obviously a desert. Antarctica is also a desert (in fact it’s the driest continent in the world). And the mass of shingle beach in Dungeness is, strangely but technically, a desert as well.

a day at Dungeness

Prospect Cottage

A little black fisherman’s hut with yellow window frames was attracting a small group of people as we strolled on past. And don’t get me wrong guys- the cottage is cute- but it’s the garden which really sells this little Victorian gem.

Prospect Cottage was bought by director and gay rights activist Derek Jarman in the 1980s, and he put lots of effort into creating a beautiful garden around it. Sculptures are created out of flotsam and jetsam, artfully arranged to create little pathways in the shingle, and all the sea-air loving plants provide massive bursts of colour.

It is downright GORGEOUS.

Dungeness holiday cottages

As we walked around the village and across the shingle of Dungeness beach we saw a whole collection of quirky characters and signs of life in this isolated pocket of tranquility. A little boy called out ‘hello! hello!’ hello!’ to us from his garden, a line of washing blowing in the breeze behind him. A man sat on the roof of a railway carriage with a parrot sitting on his shoulder, surveying the landscape. A group sat on deckchairs outside an old Romany caravan, enjoying a cuppa in the sunshine.

Although there’s a small community of permanent residents, a lot of the old fisherman’s huts and railway carriages are available for hire as Dungeness holiday cottages. Well pals- what an atmospheric location to stay in, that’s all I’m saying.

Related: The Best Things to Do in South Devon

Ness Cottage was one of my favourites, although Mulberry Cottages has a great selection of Dungeness cottages to choose from. And the strangest holiday cottage we saw was Shingle House– an architectural masterpiece painted completely black with tiny windows. After a snoop online, it seems that Shingle House is actually super bright and airy inside- and it’d make a great place for a relaxing staycation in Kent.

holiday cottages in Dungeness
a holiday cottage in Dungeness

Dungeness is a fitting location to wander through when we’re in the middle of such a strange period in time. It feels as if it’s a whole world away from everything else, and invokes quite a strong ‘otherworldly’ sensation.

I can see why some people don’t like the atmosphere here- particularly on a foggy winters day- but for me this little Kent village is one of the most captivating and unique places to visit in England.

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3 thoughts on “A Day at Dungeness – the only desert in England”

  1. At first, I looked at the pictures and thought, “Where’s the desert?” but then as I read your post, I learned that it doesn’t have to look like the Sahara desert to be called one. Very interesting!

  2. Such a weird place! I think we went to Britannia Inn for lunch, I remember it being really good! I did wonder why there are lighthouses all over the show, didn’t realise that it had moved so much, that’s really fascinating! There’s actually a beach in Orkney which used to be right by the road when I was a kid… now you have to walk over sand dunes for like 10 minutes to get to it because it’s expanded so much! And that’s just in 20 years. You always think of the water rising and reclaiming land, so it’s interesting to see when it does the opposite.

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