Dungeness lighthouse cottages brought back to life

The Roundhouse and cottage

The Roundhouse and cottage - Credit: Nathan Shepherd

On windswept Dungeness, a magical garden and inviting, cosy homes await visitors...

Kathryn tends to her coconut-scented gorse bush

Kathryn tends to her coconut-scented gorse bush - Credit: Nathan Shepherd

Teenage love affairs can prove hard to forget - and that's certainly been the case for Kathryn Morris, who first fell for windswept Dungeness aged 17. And it was an affair she certainly wasn't expecting. "At the time, back in the 1990s, we lived in a tiny rented flat in London and my father, Martin Turner - an unconventional man and a filmmaker and creative - wanted space and freedom.  He bought the Roundhouse - the bottom of the original Dungeness lighthouse, built in 1792 -  along with two other cottages, East and West, that date from 1843 and once housed the lighthouse keepers and their families. He did so without telling my mother or me in advance!  Hard to believe now, but 30 years ago, such properties were hard to shift - this was way before Dungeness became fashionable. My father read they were up for sale in a piece on quirky property in The Telegraph, and things snowballed from there - we now had a base on the wild and windswept Kent coast!"  With the Roundhouse  having been uninhabited since the last lighthouse keepers left in the 1960s, Kathryn recalls the family's new home as being very basic: "our first Christmas here was spent without running water, and with only a stove to keep us warm."
Anyone who's been to the windy little enclave complete with nuclear power station will know Dungeness inspires 'Marmite' reactions - some call it bleak and desolate, for others it's hauntingly beautiful. Says Kathryn, "By our first summer there, I was in love. Dungeness is like nowhere else: a sort of desert by the sea, there's a purity to the way in which the sky connects with the water, connects with the shingle. If you love it - and I do - you really love it."
Having spent 30 years making Dungeness his family's home, Martin died in 2018, leaving Kathryn, who works in TV production, with no small challenge. "My mother had pre-deceased my father, meaning I inherited the place. Because it had meant so much to them and to me,  I was reluctant to sell, If I wanted to stay in the Roundhouse, I  needed to make the cottages pay, though. My father had rented them out over the years to kindred spirits - artists, artisans, photographers - but it was clear the buildings needed substantial work, from rewiring to replumbing."

A woodburning stove in each cottage helps keep them cosy

A woodburning stove in each cottage helps keep them cosy - Credit: Nathan Shepherd

With all three buildings Grade-II listed, Kathryn had to negotiate with local planning officers before she could begin to make changes. "One thing I was adamant about was the need for double-glazing - I know how brutal it can be here in the winter, and I wanted to offer all-year-round accommodation, especially as the area has a unique appeal in the colder months. Eventually, I was permitted to add heritage glazing, which, along with the woodburning stoves and huge cast iron radiators, ensures the cottages are really cosy."
Kathryn also faced challenges when it came to usually fairly straight-forward tasks, such as choosing interior paint colours. "The light here is very special, but it can make white paint 'read' as grey or green. I wanted something warmer, and having tried loads of paints without success, I eventually  turned to a London company called Atelier Ellis, who actually sent someone down to look at the place and help me find just the right shade. I also went for their lovely Pollen Yellow on the kitchen cabinets - it's a soft, warm yellow that's very 'Dungeness'." Plenty of tongue and groove, original or reclaimed Georgian floorboards and vintage furniture also give the cottages a sense of warmth and help to emphasise their history as family houses and historic buildings. 

East Cottage Dungeness

Kathryn worked hard to find a white that would look good in Dungeness's light - this has a soft, warm glow - Credit: Bloom Stays

Outside, the garden that's sheltered between the two cottages - "my father's passion" - required specialist attention too: with salt and wind to contend with here, it's a hostile environment for many plants. " I did have one advantage, though, in that we have some topsoil," says Kathryn. " These days, the shingle is heavily protected as a Site of Specific Scientific Interest, so adding soil wouldn't be permitted. The lighthouse keepers imported it long ago, though, meaning there's something for plants to latch onto, plus we attract a unique range of wildlife to the plot - often I'll find bird-watchers gathered round outside to see if we've got any particularly interesting visitors – wheaters, swallows, martins and warblers are regularly seen.  

The garden with its protective hedges

The garden with its protective hedges - Credit: Nathan Shepherd

Kathryn was also very fortunate to meet Marc O'Neill, who grew to love Dungeness when he worked on Derek Jarman's famous garden just up the road from her at Prospect Cottage." With Marc's help, her own garden now boasts a wide variety of drought-loving Mediterranean plants, alongside the native poppies, coconut-scented gorse ("you can eat the flowers - and they taste of coconut too"), viper's bugloss, and broom: "normally it grows flat along the shingle, but it grows upright here, uniquely sheltered by the garden walls and the Elaeagnus hedges my father planted 30 years ago."

Flowers bloom

Flowers bloom - Credit: Shepherd photography

With the East and West Cottages now rented out via Kent specialist agency Bloom Stays, Kathryn is, for the time-being certainly, happily at home in the Roundhouse. "There's a real sense of community, with young families mingling with those who've lived and worked here for decades - I certainly have more of a social life here than I ever did in Brighton. And  where else can you find a landscape like this?" It sounds as if this love-affair's unlikely to end any time soon. 
East and West Cottages, Dungeness, can be rented via bloomstays.com - each sleeps four.

Kathryn's three Kent top tips
The Red Lion in Snargate "a traditional pub serving great Kent ales and ciders and with a bygone interior."
Symmonds Salvage "want an old post box or a flight of stairs? You'll find it at this vast treasure trove in the woods" symondssalvage.co.uk
Boldshaves Garden, Woodchurch.  "If you're lucky, owner (and former Kent High Sheriff) Perigrine Massey will be on hand to give you a tour - there's cake, too, and  the enchanting song of the nightingale to enjoy in spring..." boldshaves.com