Wednesday, September 3rd 2014but also
It seems hardly possible that it is over five years since we visited that strange beautiful place called Dungeness (see Steaming through Kent) but so it is and we are overdue for a return visit.
Map showing Dungeness
Click for Google Map
Dungeness is in the county of Kent, in the bottom right-hand corner of England (or the southeast, if you want to be pedantic). It lies on a triangular shaped promontory jutting into the English Channel. Although people live on it, Dungeness is a nature reserve (the RSPB has a bird sanctuary there), formed mainly of a large shingle beach that is continually reshaped by the sea. Its close neighbour is the wetland area called Romney Marsh.
How do you get there from the metropolis? If you have a car, I assume you can drive in, and there is also a bus that will take you from one of the neighbouring towns. We however, preferred to take the railway. The might surprise you because if you look on the map you are unlikely to see any sign of a railway line reaching Dungeness. Appearances can be deceptive!
Arriving at Folkestone
By the HS1
To start our journey, we took the HS1 from St Pancras to Folkestone. Folkestone used to be known for its ferry services to France but the Channel Tunnel has killed that trade and Folkestone has been struggling to recover. It is still a town worth visiting and we have come here on several occasions before – see, for example, Some Pictures of Folkestone.
Like the back of my hand
A Millennium project by Strange Cargo Arts Company, 2004
We discovered that Folkestone is very lively culturally and artistically (see Multi-cultural and artistic Folkestone) and indications of this begin right at the railway station on whose wall is affixed an art installation like the back of my hand, consisting of 101 hand prints cast in bronze. The work was devised and carried out by Strange Cargo.
From Folkestone, we took a bus to Hythe. This is a pleasant town though its name is far from unique. We know of at least three Hythes and of other cases where that word is part of a town’s name. It derives from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a landing place where goods are unloaded from ships. That gives a clue to the history of Hythe. (For the derivation of the name of Folkestone, see Some pictures of Folkestone.)
The Royal Military Canal, Hythe
Against a Napoleonic invasion
One of the prettier features of Hythe is the waterway shown above. At first sight I was unsure whether it was a river, a canal or just a decorative water feature. Its name, Royal Military Canal, hints at its origins. It was built for defensive purposes between 1804 and 1809, during the wars with France (1793-1815), when it was believed that there was a very real threat of an invasion by Napoleon’s armies. A helpful information board tells us that it runs for 28 miles from Seabrook (near Folkestone) to Cliff End (near Hastings). Adding to its quaintness and charms is its zigzag shape. This feature was deliberately incorporated as it meant that each section of the canal could be covered by fire from cannons installed at the bends. Today, it is simply a beautiful landscape feature that also provides a habit for water fowl and other riverine species.
Hythe, Romney & Dymchurch Railway
Our reason for coming here was to board the train for Dungeness. We would be travelling on the Hythe, Romney and Dymchurch Railway. We arrived just as a train was about to depart and had to quickly buy our tickets and hurry aboard. I only had time to photograph the station.
Young boys (and some not so young) like to play with train sets but millionaires can afford something a little more elaborate. The two millionaires relevant to our story were Captain J.E.P. Howey and Count Louis Zborowski. Both dreamed of creating a real railway system in miniature and set out to carry their plan through together. The Count was unfortunately killed in a racing accident but Howey continued the project, together with Henry Greenly as Chief Engineer and locomotive designer. A site was found in the Romney Marshes and the railway finally opened in 1927. If you would like more details of the history of this fascinating railway, you will find narratives here and here.
Let me stress that, though its description includes the word “miniature”, this railway is not a mere toy or exhibition piece. It runs a regular scheduled passenger service from Hythe to Dungeness (13½ miles), the carriages being drawn by either diesel or steam locomotives that are perfect scaled-down replicas of their full-sized cousins.
Some passengers behave more responsibly than others
The railway is very popular with holidaymakers and visitors and by the time we reached the train, it was quite packed. There was no time to spare and we managed to slot ourselves into vacant seats. As you can see, the carriages are not very wide or tall but are comfortable enough for the relatively short journey. Unfortunately, the man in front of me leaned out of the window the whole way (despite notices saying not to do this), filming the journey with his camcorder and making it difficult for me to get photos except perpendicular to our direction of travel. He would be quite unaware of how annoying this was for others.
A view from the train
The name Romney Marsh may give the impression that the train was somehow travelling on boggy ground but the area traversed by the railway is, happily, quite solid. It consists of countryside and and farmland, for the most part very beautiful, especially on a sunny today like today when the sun shines down from a perfectly clear sky.
The first stop after Hythe
Our first stop was at the little town of Dymchurch. The railway ticket allows you to travel from A to B or to get off and get on again as often as you like. The atmosphere was free and easy and our tickets were checked only if we came into a station from the street. I imagine it would be possible to travel up and down, getting off and getting on, all day.
Dymchurch was an important town in its day because, in the Middle Ages, it was the seat of government for the Romney Marshes. Hence the name: this comes from dema, meaning a ‘judge’ in Old English, added to cirice, ‘church’. Dymchurch thus means “Judges’ Church”.
Approaching our last stop
The ever fascinating Dungeness
We set off again and made three more stops – at St Mary’s Bay, New Romney and Romney Sands – before finally pulling into the terminus at Dungeness. Depending on your mood and the weather, you might find Dungeness a daunting place when first you catch sight of it. For one thing, the huge Dungeness Nuclear Power Station cannot be ignored.
A main feature – the lighthouse
More pleasingly, you also spot the lighthouse. Every seaside scene should include a lighthouse, I think, though many do not. I say the lighthouse because that’s how I tend to think of it, a big bold and, dare I say, “typical” lighthouse. But in fact, there have been five lighthouses altogether, of which two remain. This is the fourth Lighthouse.
The name of the place may strike you as odd but it is said to derive from the joining together of several Anglo-Saxon words describing features of the area. Thus, there is denu (‘valley’), mersc (‘marsh’) and næss (‘headland’) which, added together and simmered during centuries, evolved into Dungeness. I am told that a popular etymology claims that the name derives from a French phrase meaning “dangerous nose”, but I think we can safely ignore that!
The modern lighthouse
The modern lighthouse, which began operating in 1961, needs no crew to manage it as it is fully automatic and is controlled from the Trinity House Centre in Harwich, Essex. It does its job and looks like a lighthouse but I don’t think it’s a splendid as its older rival.
The diesel loco that pulled our train
Having arrived at Dungeness, where the train turns back by running around a loop, we could disembark and have a look at the miniature loco that had pulled our train. The RH&DR has a fleet of locomotives, both steam engines and internal combustion (diesel) engines. Each is named and ours commemorates one of the founders of the railway, Captain Howey. A relative youngster, it was built 1989.
The Light Railway Cafe
We, and many other passengers, piled into the Light Railway Cafe. As there were already customers from previous arrivals, the place was crowded. The staff were obviously used to this and worked cheerfully and efficiently to provide drinks and meals.
After lunch we went for an exploratory ramble. The land here is flat, allowing distant views. In this one we see two lighthouses, the modern one and its predecessor. This lighthouse, in the foreground, was built in 1904 and continued in service until it was supplanted by the new one. It can now be visited.
An abiding presence – the sea
We found our way to the sea, the abiding presence that shapes the coastline and, whichever way you look, continually growls in the background.
A line of sea kale
Harsh as this environment is, there is plenty of plant life. Sea kale (crambe maritima) grows along ridges in the shingle. These ridges are caused by differing sea levels, tides and, I imagine, storms. Though the plants tolerate a salty environment, I understand that they survive from rainwater that is trapped in the shingle.
Golden flowers of kale
The plants hug the ground to avoid damage by wind and waves and enliven their slightly dull green foliage and attract pollinators with bright golden flowers.
Old Coastguard Lookout
Now a holiday cottage for hire
In this land, buildings are scattered or present in small groups. Dwellings are mostly single-storey and only “official” structures are taller, such as this old Coastguard Lookout, no longer used as such and converted into a holiday cottage.
The modern lighthouse
Dwarfed by the landscape
Even the modern lighthouse, 141 ft (43 m) tall, is dwarfed by the landscape until you come close to it.
The 1904 Lighthouse
With subsidiary buildings at its foot
The older lighthouse, though a little taller at 150 ft (43 m), and rather more imposing in design, can also seem like a toy when seen from a distance. In the above photo the circular building once fitted around the base of the now demolished third lighthouse of 1782.
…lost in the immensity
Human figures appear tiny – less than Lilliputian – in the three immensities of land, sea and sky.
The Dungeness Nuclear Power Station
A brooding presence
The one structure not dwarfed by distance and the flatness of the landscape in the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. It started operating in 1983 and is due for decommissioning in 2018. The complex is so big that even when you are not looking directly at it, you tend to catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of your eye and its presence seems to follow you around. There is, of course, something paradoxical about the presence of such a facility in a nature reserve.
A steam locomotive
When we returned to the station, a train had just arrived, pulled by a steam locomotive called Hurricane. This beautiful machine is one of the railway’s old-timers, having been built in 1927. Such was the crush of enthusiastic people examining and admiring the engine that I despaired of getting a clear shot of it. I therefore walked across the tracks and photographed it from there, albeit on the shadow side.
When I returned to the platform, to my surprise, those still admiring the engine tipped one another the wink and stepped back to give me a clear view. Even so, just as I clicked the shutter someone blundered into the frame from the right (I’ve cropped him out) and the brief respite came to an end. Let me say that I am no “anorak”, one of those who chase after veteran locos and rolling stock to photograph and film them but I do appreciate these beautifully made machines that are scale replicas of full size locomotives and in full working order.
A RH&DR station
We started the return journey but made a pause at New Romney. This is quite a large station with plenty of facilities including a cafe and the inevitable gift shop. We had ideas of visiting the town and set out to do so but either this was farther away than we anticipated or we went the wrong way because we did not find it and after a longish walk we decided to return to the station to wait for the next train to Hythe. The above photo was taken from the station’s footbridge.
While we were waiting on the station at New Romney, another steam loco came in and I got a snap of it. This one is the Green Goddess and is two years older than Hurricane, having been built in 1925. (Note the oil can on the ground.) Station stops are apt to be lengthy because the steam engines then have their water tanks refilled and the driver or fireman can put some oil on the joints. We are used to seeing films where the fireman on a high-speed loco thrusts coal into the furnace with a big shovel but here, the coal is put in gently with a small hand shovel, much as you would add fuel to your living room fire!
Crossing the stream
and enjoying the beautiful scenery
We took the the train once more and submitted ourselves to the hypnotic tickety-tick of the wheels and the rush of the wind – the carriage windows are unglazed. Some of the more photographically enticing moments came as we crossed bridges over waterways, as exemplified above. Almost too soon, the journey ended and we found ourselves once more in Hythe.
Royal Military Canal revisited
We made our way to the bus stop but could not resist taking a few more photos now that the scene was warmly lit by the evening sun. The Royal Military Canal may have been constructed for defensive purposes against a background of fear of invasion by Napoleon but, since then, it has evolved into an amenity, which nature has taken unto herself and beautified.
This account ends where it began, at Folkestone railway station, now quiet after the bustle of the day. It is a curious sensation swapping the minitaure railway for a full-size one!
Quiet after the bustle of the day
Dungeness is commonly described as a place of “strange beauty” and that encapsulates the character of the place. It probably requires a hardy outlook to live here but plenty of people manage to do so, though human habitation is not the first feature to strike you at first sight. I must admit to being attracted to the place, though whether I could actually live here, I do not know. I shall probably never find out but I do hope to return again to visit Dugeness in the not too distant future.
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