Dungeness: a place like nowhere else

several wooden boats on the sand after sunset

Dungeness beach - full of atmosphere - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dungeness is undoubtedly the Marmite of Kent coastal resorts, but whether you find its atmosphere strange and stark or mesmeric and uniquely powerful (and not just in a nuclear sense) you can't fail to be impressed by the fresh fish dishes served slap on its shingle beach, its enormous sound mirrors (once you've fought through what locals refer to as 'the jungle' to reach them), or the extraordinary variety of wildlife.

Places to eat in Dungeness

Catch of the Day

Catch of the Day - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

So let's start with the food. You'll need to check via Facebook that's it's open, but  the family-run Snack Shack usually operates Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 3.30pm. Located just off the road running parallel to the sea, you can't miss it thanks to the queues of people waiting to hand in their orders, though rest assured that snaking line does move quite quickly. They come for delights such as crab-stuffed baps and lobster rolls, and seasonal fish brought in daily on the owners' own boats, the Annalousion and The Doreen T, plus fried spuds, salads, drinks and cake. Seating is open-air only (think of the Shack as a robust sort of food van, with room for just staff and equipment inside) and consists of fewer tables and benches than there are customers, so bring rugs and cushions in case you need to eat picnic-style. If it's too cold or wet for al fresco dining, get your fish and chips at the Britannia Inn just up the road, which has indoor as well as outdoor dining options, once the former is permitted again. 

What are the Dungeness Sound Mirrors?

WWii military defence acoustic mirrors on Romney Marsh

Sound mirrors at Denge - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Afterwards, walk off lunch by heading away from the sea, through the undergrown and towards the monolithic Sound Mirrors. Before radar came along, these 'listening ears' were built as early warning devices around the coasts of Great Britain, the three large concrete ones in the area known as Denge date from the 1920s and 1930s and make for an eerily impressive sight. You'll be viewing from a distance, unless you visit on special open days arranged by Dungeness Nature Reserve. The whole area here is special, however - and as an RSPB site  you can expect to see birds such as the bittern, the spew and the little ringed plover. 

Derek Jarman's garden

Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage

Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

On your way back towards the beach, as you pass the old fishermen's shacks, you can't fail to spot the black weather-boarded facade and yellow-framed windows of Prospect Cottage, once home to filmmaker Derek Jarman. While it's long been possible to admire the garden created here, where sea kale and poppies bloom among the shingle in the unmissable shadow of the nuclear power station, a £3-million fundraising initiative has secured the preservation of Jarman's archive here and means that eventually visitors will be able to see inside the cottage, too. 

Steam train trips in Dungeness
If you're visiting Dungeness with anyone who fancies a break from feeling shingle underfoot, don't forget that steam trains have been calling here via the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway since 1928. You'll find the station close to the old lighthouse (which should be reopening in the summer - the views from the top are impressive). Hop onboard for a lovely and relaxing way to see the other little towns and communities that make up the 'Fifth Continent'.

Why is Romney known as The Fifth Continent?
The answer lies with one Thomas Ingoldsby, the pen name of 19th-century author and cleric, Richard Harris Barham, once rector of St Dunstan's Church in New Romney's Snargate. He wrote:
"The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh."
Given the unique nature of the area he describes, many visitors would agree  it seems wholly appropriate even some two centuries later. For more about the exceptional wildlife at Dungeness, see here

Boardwalk accessibility
A boardwalk near The Britannia Inn takes you about quarter of a mile across the beach and towards the sea - handy for anyone who may find negotiating shingle difficult. 

And one thing you're advised not to do here
Definitely don't go swimming - the water gets very deep very quickly and the currents are dangerous - just look at it from a safe distance instead! For details of other great Kent beaches to visit, see here

Read all about it

If you want to travel to Dungeness via literature, author William Shaw's crime novels could be just what you need. Here, William tells Kent Life how the area has influenced his writing:

"A setting, authors often say, is like another character in a book. It is a presence, just as much as the jilted lover or the sharp-knived killer. As characters, few come as rich and unpredictable as Dungeness.

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"The backdrop for my Alex Cupidi crime series is 12 square miles of shingle, jutting out into the Channel, built up by the longshore drift. Scattered on it, just above the shoreline, are the cabins originally built by the quarry workers who dug the pits that now attract so many migratory birds.

"The shacks are works of art. Everyone knows the black and yellow of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, but each of these improvised cabins holds stories of their own. I once stayed in one belonging to the local artist Paddy Hamilton, built around a Victorian First Class railway carriage that had once travelled the LCDR line to Broadstairs. ‘Charles Dickens would have sat in this carriage,’ Paddy said, and he was probably right. Now a richer class has moved in, creating architectural marvels that dare to attempt to hold their modernist angles firm in this chaotic landscape.

"When the quarrymen left, the nature-lovers moved in. In my first book set here, The Birdwatcher, I made the mistake of calling Dungeness 'bleak'. It’s not. For the post-war generation of birdwatchers, this was Eden. It became the RSPB’s first ever nature reserve. In terms of wildlife, this migratory outpost with its artificially created lakes is rich with species. This extraordinary natural history has crept into every book. Because crime fiction is always about more than just dead people. The precarious, shifting shingle of Dungeness embodies a sense of the fragility of our world.

"Plus, of course, there’s the nuclear power station; a bright, humming, rectangular metaphor ready to hand whenever needed."

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