In his new column Michael Smith responds to the essence of a place
Escaping the Big Smoke for the weekend, we drove to Dungeness, a world away. I first stumbled upon the place 10 years ago, and it's haunted my imagination ever since. Dungeness is England's only desert, an arid spit of shingle jutting out from the Kentish coast, an enchanted wasteland at the ends of England that meets the endless blue. It feels like the England that's left over, left behind; in the words of Derek Jarman, who came here to see out his dying days, Dungeness is set apart, it is the fifth quarter, the end of the globe'.
We parked up by the side of the only road into the Ness a scattering of ramshackle fishermen's shacks and prefab bungalows raised up on breezeblocks peppered the emptiness. Chicken wire fences staked to rickety wooden poles delineated scrubby shingle front gardens that looked indistinguishable from the desolate beach in front of them: it all seems a bit of a folly, a bit King Canute, trying to claim your square of the wilderness. In the back gardens, by derelict caravans and big red butane gas canisters, washing lines from a Steinbeck novel flapped in the wind, with the nuclear power station brooding in the distance behind them, the only structure that doesn't look provisional or home made, a monolithic cuboid that dominates the surrounding landscape, its sinister low-level hum permeating everything it's an end of the world place, Dungeness. The desolate beach is littered with the odd boat wincher with rusted iron ropes and cogs, strange machines left over from an age whose meaning has become obscure to us. It feels like man versus nature here, and nature, no contest, has the upper hand.
But this has drawn a certain sophisticated, marginal cast of mind to the place among the bleached out St George Crosses flapping ragged in the sun, we came across a high-design contemporary beach house in the best possible taste: small, clean, precise, a shoebox-shaped beach house with the sea-facing side half window and half sliding glass door, with Eames chairs and a dining table inside, the beach house that will always be better than yours
But before the maddeningly tasteful people turned up, and before the gawpers like me, there was Derek Jarman's garden, the thing that made the Ness a site of curious pilgrimage, a strange garden built of driftwood, bits of land mines laid for the Germans, the detritus of our heritage, transformed into a desolate and transcendent beauty: rusty spokes and spiral shells become magically, mysteriously symbolic, circular grooves in the shingle laid out as if to harness the mystical energies of the landscape, as our ancestors laid out Stonehenge or Glastonbury: They thought I was a white witch out to get the power station,' Derek Jarman joked.
I've read scraps Jarman wrote about his garden as a dying man who found his paradise here in this fifth quarter, in this excluded, other England. And standing at this garden now, it seems like the embodiment of an old spirit of liberty, the freedom to do things your way, to make it up as you go along to build your own Jerusalem in England's only desert.
Pictured: Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman's former home in Dungeness