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Dungeness – Britain’s Only Desert

Dungeness, Kent


I left my soul there,
Down by the sea
I lost control here
Living free

Psychologists say that at 17/18, the age at which I first visited Dungeness, our preferences are formed. This may in part explain why it is one of my favourite places in the UK. If I am honest, it is perhaps my favourite place in the world, as it is like nowhere else. It is a magical headland jutting out on the Kent Coast, some say it’s name translates as ‘dangerous nose’. It is Britain’s only desert, yes, you read that right, the Met office say so, and it is one of the largest areas of shingle in Europe.

It is a remote fishing community, a paradise for beachcombers, artists and more recently architects who have added bizarre and minimalist properties that are rentable for a huge fee. You can even stay in the coastguard lookout. The light here is magical, and the treasures the sea throws up curious. Derek Jarman the film maker made his home here, and you can still see his black and yellow Prospect Cottage, a fisherman’s hut with a beautiful garden constructed of driftwood sculptures and the Donne poem written on the wall in stones Jarman collected on the beach. I remember reading in a book of his, all about his garden and how he constructed it over years of beachcombing.

IMG_0715.JPG  IMG_0714.JPG IMG_0715.JPG

People come here to escape, and pop stars (Prodigy, Lighthouse Family) come here to make music videos in peace. I debated writing this, as it is the sort of place you want to keep secret.

Something about standing on the gentle curve of Dungeness beach makes me feel truly alive. When you walk down this steep beach and stand on the edge of this arching shoreline, you see no landmarks and it feels like you are on the edge of the world. 18 year old me couldn’t get over that and now, at 37 it was amazing to introduce that feeling to my kids. I should mention the nuclear power station too, which adds another end of the world feeling altogether, and whose glow and warm water pumped into the sea also keeps the sea and bird life cosy, or so I read on Wikipedia.

It was magic to be there with even more of my favourite people this time. Here comes my brother, his wife and their son B.


The day was a bit cold for B, who refused to wear his gloves, as 2 year olds do, my two were exactly the same.IMG_0121.JPG

I love the light here, it just feels magical, the feeling of space is incredible. The kids were straight into paddling. Dad was in his element too. He’s keen for us all to go back and rent a place actually on Dungeness next time, which would be incredible.


Soon we were all lobbing stones in the sea, apart from Mr A and Max the dog, who hates shingle and refuses to walk on it.

Dungeness, Kent-9

Watching his Daddy..

Dungeness, Kent-10

My turn now!

Dungeness, Kent-8 Dungeness, Kent-2

Playing King Canute


Yep Mr G got soaked…and ended up wearing my gloves on his feet.


Fortunately, Dungeness has a pub to warm up in. I remember it well, aged 18 with Mark and Vicki, and later in my early 20s, when I took Mr A on a pilgrimage to Dungeness. My pint of lager and my chips tasted like no chips and lager I had ever tasted. I remember the giddly feeling of sharing a pint with good friends.

But they wouldn’t be my family if they didn’t perform a spot of CSI Dungeness first, the victim a headless owl they found on the beach.

Dungeness, Kent-12

There wasn’t room for us in the ‘red velvet and roaring fire’ traditional end of the Britannia pub this time round, but this area was perfect for the kids. The veg curry and chips tasted amazing, I swear food tastes different here, and the rest of the family loved the fresh fish and chips.

Dungeness, Kent-13Dungeness Kent-6

Lots of toasts to Dad’s 70th, to being together, to windswept hair, and lots of surveying our treasures.

Dungeness Kent-5 Dungeness Kent-7

The grown ups wanted to explore the old boats, but the kids were a bit damp, so we left them in the car with Mr A. Me and Dad had an amazing walk, following the old train tracks, which I am guessing had something to do with fishing? Although there was a train to Dungeness in the 30s and some of the homes are made from old railway carriages. While we were stood here we watched a hare legging it across the shingle, being chased by a gull, an amazing sight. Dungeness is a Site of Specific Scientific Interest and has over a third of the UK’s plant life, rare insects and bird life.

Dungeness Kent-8

The old fishing huts reminded me of Cornelia’s Parker’s An Exploded View, the shed blown up at The Tate Gallery.

Fishing boats sail past the shore
No singing may-day any more

Dungeness Kent-9Some of the huts are more newly abandoned than others, just as I was looking into one that was roofless, but still standing, peering at the old nets, rusty tins of paint, old thermos flasks, there came a deep, spine chilling ‘Oi!’ behind me. I leapt into the air, thinking I had been caught snooping in someone’s things by a born and bred Dungeness fisherman. But there was no one there, which was even creepier.

Moments later of course, my brother pops up from behind a rock laughing. Git. Dad was off taking pictures of the boats.

Dungeness Kent-11How can something so battered be so beautiful? It just is.Dungeness Kent-10Perhaps my favourite pic, washed out and grainy, but I was struggling, having forgotten my memory card and my phone kept switching off. Torture in a place like this.

Dungeness, Kent-16


So, that’s my favourite place with my favourite people. The place I dream of escaping to.  Have you been? What’s your favourite place?

I’d love to stay
The city calls me home
More hassles fuss and lies on the phone


Lyrics from The Sea, Morcheeba.



    • parentshaped
      23/03/2015 / 1:12 pm

      And that is my second favourite place! See theme emerging – I need to live by the sea again!

  1. 23/03/2015 / 5:13 pm

    How lovely. It really is the simple things in life isn’t it? And those boats! Love love love.

    • parentshaped
      23/03/2015 / 10:00 pm

      Absolutely is the simple things!

  2. 23/03/2015 / 5:43 pm

    I love wintry windswept beaches – and like you this one reminds me of my youth! My grandparents lived in Kent and they took us here when I was quite small. Haven’t been back for years, but it rather like Dunwich which we go to quite a lot!

    • parentshaped
      23/03/2015 / 10:00 pm

      You lucky thing!

  3. 23/03/2015 / 8:40 pm

    The day I passed Dungeness it was lashing down with rain but here I can see its beauty in your photos. I must visit at some point too, thanks for sharing.

    • parentshaped
      23/03/2015 / 10:00 pm

      You must, you aren’t as far away as me!

  4. Vicki
    23/03/2015 / 8:44 pm

    A beautiful post Penny May, I definitely remember feeling drunk after one pint in that pub, and strangey intoxicated in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on, it defintely rates up there in my top 3 places in the world, with La Hinch in Co Clare Ireland, and Exmouth on the West Coast of Australia, and they all have similar features, wild rugged beaches, out of this world wildlife,remoteness, mad local industry, fisherfolk, and memories of being with special people, So glad you got to revisit, you should totally holiday there, big love to the family, and to you, it’s been too long. Great job on Red nose day fund raising, you loon xx

    • parentshaped
      23/03/2015 / 9:59 pm

      Loving your descriptions Vicki- spot on! Macc is full of favourite places too though, and I need to come back, feels like forever!

  5. Becky
    24/03/2015 / 11:47 am

    Your VERY naughty brother!

    • parentshaped
      26/03/2015 / 6:06 pm

      Ha ha, I knew you would pick up on that bit 🙂

  6. 24/03/2015 / 12:39 pm

    What a beautiful post Penny, it sounds like the perfect place for a family day out, what amazing memories you all must have made.

    • parentshaped
      26/03/2015 / 6:07 pm

      Here’s to many more – must go back!

  7. Carolin
    24/03/2015 / 8:16 pm

    What a wonderful place. I love being by the sea, especially during winter. Nothing beats the waves crashing against the shore in full force and the wind messing up your hair.

    • parentshaped
      26/03/2015 / 6:07 pm

      Great for the soul!

    09/10/2016 / 3:13 pm

    I am so glad you loved it, my mum had three sisters who all lived at Dungeness one at The Redoubt, one opposite the power station at Lloyds Cottage and one who lived near The Pilot pub. Their husbands/sons were fishermen and lifeboatmen all their lives,as were their father’s before them. everyone was related in some way. We spent many a happy holiday there as kids and adored it, how lucky we were. I am so glad it remains unspoilt for future generations to discover and love.x

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