Saturday 24 April 2021 – Dungeness.
I find it hard to believe that there are (only) 97 days to go until we leave for Auckland. Some times it seems that departure day is so far away, yet other times it feels like there’s no time left at all. 97 days is a bit of a non-period to note; stuck between the newly important ‘100 days’ and the more useful three months. However, as I start typing, that is what the countdown says, and right now I am thinking ‘Wow, there is not a lot of time left.’ Most days I just wish time would hurry up and it would be July now. Is it normal to wish life away?
In unrelated, but interesting news, I entered a piece of flash fiction (in this case a story in under 250 words) into a competition last week. I have no expectation of getting any response other than the ‘thanks for your entry’ email I have already received, but it felt good to do it. This is the first time I have shared any fiction writing with anyone other than Eleanor and a couple of people who provided feedback on the short story I wrote; and still need to finish editing. When the competition closes at the end of May I will post the flash fiction.
Eleanor left for a week in Walthamstow this morning. After doing a few chores at home, (OK, I didn’t but I intended to; I went to the supermarket and wrote that last blog entry instead of painting the wall inside the wardrobe) I drove to Dungeness. I love the sparseness of Dungeness, and have become mildly obsessed with Prospect Cottage, the late Derek Jarman’s home, and it’s semi-famous garden. I used this book as inspiration for today’s photography; though I don’t claim to have managed anything as lovely as what can be found in those pages.
This entire section of Kent coast is mostly barren, pebbly and marshy flood lands, a narrow ridge with houses is all that separates the sea from pouring inland and I expect that at some point later in my children’s lifetime the sea will claim this land and there will only be marsh and sea, maybe with the occasional chimney visible at low tide.
It’s sunny and would be warm if there was not a biting cold wind blowing along the coast. I wrapped up warm, as did the seemingly million other people who decided to clog the roads with their dreadfully slow driving and head to the coast as well. Dungeness was as busy as I’ve ever seen it.
Parking outside Prospect Cottage I intended to spend some time here walking around and taking photos of the garden. Given the number of people this was a somewhat flawed plan, so I took a couple of pictures before leaving the family with the kids running around to do their thing and went for a walk on the more deserted beach.
The nuclear power station perched ominously on the edge of Dungeness beach frequently comes up in Jarman’s diaries; he occasionally dreamed about it blowing up, but most often he refers to it as a quiet neighbour. One of the few interesting backdrops to a cottage on a pebble desert.
It is a vast beach, though most of the photographically interesting stuff is around the small working fishing fleet. Much like Hastings, Dungeness’s fishing boats are beach launched; using old tractors, diggers and diesel powered winches to get the boats into and out of the water, there is nothing elegant, modern or renewable about beach-launched fishing.
I am sure I have said it before in previous Dungeness posts, but I love this place. I love the bleakness and harshness of the environment; not much grows on those sun, wind and salt scorched pebbles. There is little sand; maybe some at low tide, this not a holiday-maker beach. Few people come here to sunbathe and swim; people come here to fish, to bird watch, to walk, to be alone; or like me, to voyeur at the boats, the rocks and the fishing cottages slowly being converted into luxury Air BnBs. Sadly it is becoming increasingly popular. I blame the Instagram generation, which includes me I guess.
I walked a loop, taking some photos of the beach before going to one of the areas with a concentration of boats, tractors and the associated detritus that comes with working boats, before heading back to the cottage. On the subject of detritus; I was really surprised, and very disappointed at the amount of rubbish on the beach around the fishing boats, there was a lot of rope, wire, fishing line, plastic, all sorts of crap, all over the place. For people who should care about the sea and what lives in it they are rather cavalier about how they treat it.
The natural world is wonderful, I love how over years, maybe decades; or maybe, just over a few weeks, the beach has created its own wave formation, replicating those of the sea. Like the sea these beach waves will be different, maybe not the next time I visit, but not long after.
I spent some time around the boats and tractors; there are others taking photos as well so I was not alone, one chap I spoke to had a 1920/30s film camera and I would love to see what he was getting in this harsh light. I had been tempted, even before meeting this guy, to convert all the images from today to black and white, but have decided not to. The book has a good mix of both and it is still my guide to today. This environment would suit monochrome though, there are so many contrasts, visual and otherwise.
A few photos were taken… Maybe I should buy a film camera?
I walked back to Prospect Cottage. Mid-beach there are a number of platforms, foundations and blackened piles of wood and iron where old cottages, net or smoke huts once stood. Destroyed by nature, by accident or even deliberately? I have no idea. A part of me wishes everything be torched; leave the power station alone on the beach; a monument to the idea that nuclear was the way to go. Scorch the rest of the earth. The future beckons.
There are bricks and tiles and twisted, rusted iron rebar lying around; my favourite find was this heavy chain; one end loose and the other connected to something in the stones. I have no idea what such heavy chain would be for? Sometimes it is best not to know, I am sure there are stories from here that would keep the sturdiest of us awake at night. I am not that sturdy. I walk on, I don’t want my mind imagining things more than it does already.
An hour gone; the wind had not abated and it is getting colder (I cannot believe it is late April), there are fewer cars parked on the roadside so I walk back to Prospect Cottage; hoping that at least the families with small children would have buggered off somewhere warm, and I would have the garden more to myself.
The wind is annoying. I had the tripod with me, though there was no point in getting it out the car. I rarely use it, I don’t care that much for technical perfection in my photography, though today I want to take close up images of things in the garden, and detail requires some sort of stability; my hands aren’t what they used to be. I am less concerned about windblown foliage, in my mind it adds to the scene, as long as the principal object is still.
The tripod remains in the car and I take slightly blurry photos; again. Though it is not yet the season for colour, and I have chosen to use black and white in some images, the garden has plenty of colour, though muted variants of green dominate. In this environment the plants protect themselves with comformity, only the strong, or the wisest survives.
I manage a good fifteen minutes taking photos in the garden, it is small to be fair, but I get frustrated by the wind, by other people (admittedly fewer than before) and by my lack of ability to see what I hoped to see. Though as I edit over the following week I am not unhappy with the images I made. I take few photos, usually only one of any single thing, so a good day out taking photos may only ever be 40 or 50 images; those rare days I take 100 are extraordinary. Today I took 76, about half in the garden, so a fairly prolific day by usual standards.
It is completely the wrong time of year to be taking photos in a garden, especially one that has been scorched dry by salty winter winds, frost, lack of rain and a Covid enforced lack of gardening in a not yet opened ‘museum’ house. However, it is probably the last time I will get to come here before we go to Auckland. I like that it is still only in early spring re-growth and not in full summer bloom. It’s like it should be this time of year, a small semi-cultivated, managed oasis in what was, not that long ago, a desolate wind-swept pebble landscape; and if Jarman’s dreams of the power station melting down ever come true, then that is what it will return to.
I am uncertain as to why I became mildly obsessed with Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. I am not a film buff and I have only seen one of his works, the punk film ‘Jubilee’. I have no burning desire to see other films either, and that includes ‘The Garden’ which was largely (fully?) shot in Dungeness.
I read his book Modern Nature at the start of the Covid outbreak last year. Initially, because I am interested in writing about nature and place and it is a classic of that genre, he is a good writer. However, the book also resonated due to the correlation with Jarman’s illness with AIDS and how that pandemic was reported in the 1980s, and the situation we found ourselves in with Covid. The panic, finger pointing and misinformation that surrounded AIDS was replicated here in those initial weeks of Covid, it was as if we had learnt nothing in the intervening years (we hadn’t).
In odd way, as well as finding this lack of progress rather depressing, I found comfort knowing there was a way through this pandemic; that others had been there and done that, and that tying oneself to nature and place played an important, balancing, part in recovery.
I look forward to visiting Prospect Cottage and Dungeness when we return to the UK, maybe the cottage will be open then, maybe not. The future is unknown.