Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dungeness, Kent

Around 6,000 acres of shingle, drifts of gorse, sea kale, dock, and yellow horned poppy, scatterings of tin and wooden huts and dwellings (some made out of old railway carriages), two lighthouses, and a pair of nuclear power stations – this is the peculiar mix that is Dungeness, a triangle of windswept land sticking out into the English Channel, east of Rye. Fishing – and, since 1965, fission – have been its industries, and its buildings have long seemed as plain and provisional as the shifting shingle.

In 1986 the film-maker Derek Jarman came to Dungeness and bought Prospect Cottage. He set about making a garden amongst the pebbles, an assemblage of plants, stones, driftwood, scrap iron, and other evocative odds and ends that seem very much at one with the setting. 22 years on, the garden is thriving and well cared-for by Jarman’s partner, Keith Collins, who still lives here. It’s a place of pilgrimage for those who love Jarman’s films, who remember his bravery during his long final illness, or who simply like remarkable gardens. The house itself is a typical weather-boarded Dungeness bungalow and is around 100 years old. Not everyone notices the lines from ‘The Sunne Rising’, by the great 17th-century poet John Donne, set in wooden letters on an end wall of the house: ‘Busie old foole, unruly Sunne, Why dost thou thus, Through windows and through curtaines call on us?’ In the poem, Donne chides the sun for interrupting his time with his loved one, and jokes with typical audacity that his bed and its two occupants make up the entire cosmos anyway. It’s a resonant choice for Jarman, an artist who lived for the light that exposes films, who must have relished Dungeness’s big horizons and vast skies, and who, faced with the prospect of losing his sight, was able to envision a new set of opportunities for a blind film-maker. How typical too that he should have recognized the special character of this neglected corner of England.

8 comments:

Peter Ashley said...

I love this part of the world. And the fact that one can arrive on a little steam train (with a carriage bar if you're lucky) all adds to the very special atmosphere. Not much literature is set here, but H.E.Bates' short story 'The Lighthouse' is well worth seeking out.

Philip Wilkinson said...

The little train was in the station as we arrived. Sadly for us it was a directors' special, so we made do with tea in the station café. My Sussex friends tell me the railway is still used by people going to work and school.

Neil said...

I wish looking at these beautiful pictures I had paid more notice to Derek Jarman when he was alive. Only a great artist could have created this beauty out of the desolation of the setting. I suppose I associated him with punk, and so never gave his work the attention it deserved...

Ann Kramer said...

What a lovely piece about Prospect Cottage and Derek Jarman Phil: you've really captured the magic and strangeness of the area. If you or your commentators are interested, I do recommend the book I mentioned to you: Modern Nature The Journals of Derek Jarman. It covers the years 1989 and 1990 and is absolutely worth reading. Among many other things, he describes how he created the garden at Prospect Cottage. I too hadn't really paid a lot of attention to Derek Jarman but his book conjured up such a wonderful picture of brave, creative, and thoughtful, and at times very funny man, who loved gardening.

Peter Ashley said...

I once met and talked with Mr.Jarman in the little cafe by the railway station. Very charming, he was dressed in a blue boiler suit and said he was thinking about what shingle-loving plants to put in his garden to attract bees. I wasn't much help.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks for all these stimulating comments. Peter: your pub and café encounters are always more interesting than mine (what was that Iain Sinclair said about you extracting information from people in pubs?). While I was in the best of company when I took tea in that café my only encounter with the locals was a stony refusal when I asked for change for a fiver.

Peter Ashley said...

I've told you about trying to launder money down there.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that the garden at Prospect cottage is quite nice, it is hardly the only one. The locals have learned to grow a lot of different things on the shingle. My Grandmother managed to grow a horse chestnut tree (although it is only 8 feet tall after 44 years). Sadly the local environazis are trying to make it a crime to import "foreign" species.