Friday, August 9, 2019


You may remember that last fall I read filmmaker Derek Jarman's book "Modern Nature," about his life and garden in the remote village of Dungeness, on England's southern coast. Ever since then, I've had it in my head to go to Dungeness. It was the last of the day trips I've been meaning to take and I'm running out of summer, so yesterday became the day.

I took a train to Ashford and then another train to Rye, followed by a coastal bus that let me off very close to Dungeness. From there I could easily walk down the road that leads past Jarman's cabin to the lighthouses on the point.

It's a weird place. There is no obvious soil, really -- the ground is almost entirely made of pebbles, stretching all the way out into the water. This is known as "shingle," and according to the RSPB, which has a nature reserve there, "Dungeness has one of the largest areas of vegetated shingle in Europe and is internationally important." It isn't easy to walk across shingle, by the way -- it gives way beneath your feet and is constantly shifting. I'm amazed there's any vegetation at all.

Now I understand why Jarman's attempt to grow and write about a garden there was truly audacious.

The cabin, known as Prospect Cottage, looks much like it did in Jarman's day, and his descriptions in "Modern Nature" still ring true:

"Prospect faces the rising sun across a road sparkling silver with sea mist. One small clump of dark green broom breaks through 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 a hold -- paving the way for sage-green sea kale, blue bugloss, red poppy, yellow sedum."

"On either side of the front door are two neat flower beds each twelve feet long, and two feet six inches low tide I collect large oblong flints which are uncovered by a good storm and plant them upright like dragon's teeth in the beds. In front of them, two small circles of twelve stones each form a primitive sundial. In spite of the dry summers these flower beds thrive. A little mulching helps."

Jarman wrote those words in January 1989, when weather conditions were no doubt different than they were yesterday. The following August he described a landscape more similar to what I saw, dry and golden with yellow blooming ragwort and blue bugloss:

"The sea has turned perfect blue, set off by the pale yellow grasses and pink shingle. For painters of colour this grass is the elusive Naples yellow, a color which I have always loved."

One the side of Prospect Cottage are words from John Donne:

Busie olde foole, unruly Sunne;
Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?
Must to they motions lovers seasons run?
Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide
Late schoole boyes, and sowre prentices,
Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call countrey ands to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, months, which are the rags of time.

Thou sunne art halfe as happy'as wee,
In that the world's contracted thus;
Thine ages askes ease, and since thy duties bee
To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare.

As in Jarman's day, the garden is studded with bits of found metal and wood and other ornaments.

Prospect Cottage is privately owned, so I shot all my pictures from the street. A few people who came by at the same time as I were much more brazen, wandering right up to the garden. I suppose the lack of fences or barriers is a testament to the current owner's admirable desire to preserve Jarman's environment. (Jarman died in 1994.)

It's a weirdly circular thing, isn't it, to bring a copy of a book to the location where it was written?

Although it's mostly nature preserve, Dungeness is hardly a pristine environment. There's a huge power station there, blocky and gray on the horizon. (Those clumps of gray-green vegetation in the foreground are the sea kale that Jarman mentioned. We have sea kale in our garden but it doesn't look quite the same -- maybe it's a different species.)

And there are two lighthouses, the old one (at right in the photo above)...

...and a newer, more modern version.

Visitors can climb to the top of the old lighthouse, which gives a good view of the sparse terrain, with the row of cottages (including Prospect Cottage) along the coastal road.

Anyway, I'm so glad I got motivated to go down there, and I was happy to find that re-reading parts of Jarman's book on the train gave me just as much pleasure as reading it the first time.


  1. It is a magical place - almost otherworldly - neither of the sea or of the land - but caught somewhere in between. I hope that you also took pictures of some of the ruins, wrecks and debris to be found upon the shingle.

  2. Wonderful post Steve!
    The first photo captures the past and the unforgiving coastline; I'm curious about the fishermen's nets boiled in amber preservative. Google is no help.
    Jarman was obviously a man who liked a challenge. What an inhospitable environment for growing plants of any description.
    And you're right about walking on shingle; it's tiring and hard work - two steps forward and one back.

  3. We must visit there when we go to Ashford. An inspiring garden

  4. What an evocative day trip it must have been for you. A line from John Donne's poem captured me: "Nor houres, dayes, months, which are the rags of time." You made good use of your rag of time this day. Something in an austere environment always touches the melancholy in me but also makes me breathe easy. Thank you for sharing your day.

  5. Otherworldly, for sure. Do you know what motivated Jarman to live such an austere life in that place?

  6. Oh My, I really felt as if I were standing right there. What a harsh life but yet beautiful in it's own way.
    I am sorry that Summer is fading fast for you. I am awaiting Autumn with a feeling of impatience but know that I will miss the Summer of cool mornings such as today and the unexpected breeze that cools the skin.
    Jarman sounds like an incredible man. I think that I will look him up and read and I love the light houses.
    Have a wonderful day Steve. Beth

  7. it certainly has a beauty of it's own. I'm surprised so much grows there. there must be some dirt under there somewhere. really great pics. I especially like the first one of the boat.

  8. This must have been a very descriptive book that it motivated you to go to the location. I'll bet much of the book made more sense after visiting the area.

  9. What a wonderful place to go visit and explore. Thank you for taking the journey to get there. Love the stories and photos.

  10. Thank you for this post, Your photos are fabulous! Sarah took me here but I did not realize what I was seeing. It is odd, isn't it, when I think of the seaside this is not what I picture. The clacking shingle or " flint" is very weird, of course I filled my pockets with many stones. Anyway, again I thank you for this post- sometimes we do not realize where we have been- your photos are the BEST

  11. I looks so much like the desert environment I live in. Totally different weather and plants but still that same stark beauty. It's nice to see that the new owner left those garden patches the same. Thanks for taking us along on these great day trips.

  12. Strangely, the landscape looks rather more like desert. I'll see if I can get Jarman's book here. Nice photos!

  13. The house looks prettier than I expected given his visual style

  14. This is wonderful. Your pictures and your observations and the quotes. I remember reading the book in the early 1990s after returning to Europe and feeling a bit lost in all that regulated drabness of western society and Jarman was offering such a sharp view of what mattered.

  15. He must have been very depressive to want to stay in such a place.

  16. Great post Steve. I remember we went there some years ago and I found it an odd place, couldn't put my finger on it though.
    We have shingle on our Brighton beaches and I agree, not easy to walk on you need flip flops. lol

  17. YP: It is a very bizarre landscape! And yes, I have other photos of the rusty devices on the beach.

    Alphie: I don't know about the amber preservative either -- what it might have been -- although I can picture what he means.

    GZ: Definitely! It's worth checking out just because it's such a strange environment.

    Mary: That "rags of time" line struck me, too! Jarman had HIV in a time when there was no treatment, so I imagine he felt the need to make use of those rags of time.

    Ms Moon: I think he enjoyed the quiet. He was in London a lot and also maintained a place there, so it wasn't as though he was entirely isolated.

    Beth: Seasonal change is good and bad. I'm sorry to see summer go, but it will be nice to move into autumn!

    Ellen: Yeah, there must be sediment of some kind, but surely not much in the way of nutrients. Jarman brought in soil and mulch for his garden.

    Red: Absolutely! Seeing it first-hand gave me a deeper appreciation of the challenges of gardening in such a place, for one thing.

    Robin: It was a great expedition!

    Linda Sue: How cool that you went there! I purposely did not pick up any stones, because I was afraid if I started I wouldn't stop! LOL

    Sharon: It IS very desert-like, isn't it? I don't know if you can tell in that top photo of the boat, but you can see the heat shimmering off the shingle, giving the ocean horizon a rippled effect.

    E: Yeah, check it out! You'd like his references to '80s London and queer culture at the time.

    John: It's a very neat little nest, isn't it? No visible blood or bizarre makeup!

    Sabine: He's definitely a good counterpoint to "regulated drabness," as you so wonderfully put it.

    Catalyst: I don't think so! I think he saw it as a retreat from his busy city life. I think his friends were a bit mystified, though.

    Briony: I thought of Brighton while I was there! Seems like flip-flops would make shingle-walking even MORE difficult.

  18. Loved reading this and seeing the photos. Dungeness is one of my favourite places on the planet. It’s very ‘other worldly.’ Dungeness means headland or spit of land. There’s another Dungeness on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.
    The comments about it looking like a desert are spot on - it’s the only desert in the UK and classified as such because of the low rainfall.
    It also has a steam powered narrow gauge railway, which is great fun to ride.
    Love it there - need another visit!

  19. Really fascinating information and pictures. Thanks for sharing. I need to find out more about Jarman.