|Miniature railway, lighthouses, shingle - Dungeness!|
Actually I read about it first, in Derek Jarman's wonderful, elegiac book 'Modern Nature'. This must have been twenty years ago, but both the tone of the book and the descriptions of the film-maker's strange, stony garden stayed with me. A dying man attempting to tease life out of salt-encrusted shingle, in the shadow of a nuclear power station? I didn't like his films, particularly, but this was a wonderful tale.
|Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman's former home (private - please respect)|
Then I came across the painting by Eric Ravilious that features in 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', which gives a completely different impression. His version is more like a scene from an old-fashioned Sci-fi movie, with improbable modern structures dotted around a desolate shore. Dungeness had been popular with artists since at least the mid-19th century, when dramatic scenes of ships in peril were so much in vogue. More recently, that intrepid travelling artist John Piper had made several lovely pictures of the lighthouse and attendant buildings, using his favoured media of pen and ink, gouache and collage. Ravilious may have seen these, which would partially explain his idiosyncratic choice of subject and angle.
|Eric Ravilious, Dungeness, 1939, private collection/DACS|
Approaching my destination on a narrow lane it was clear that this was one of the world's stranger and more wonderful places. To the right the industrial bulk of not one, but two nuclear power stations. To the left, an evenly-spaced row of houses, each slightly different to its neighbour, which stretched away along the coast towards Dymchurch, as far as I could see. And all around, the most extraordinary landscape - a kind of miniature Lake District with hills ten feet high and no plant taller than a gorse bush.
|The Low Light, built C19, converted to foghorn station C20|
While the cliffs of Beachy Head, just along the coast, are constantly being worn away, the shingle bank is continually growing, and as the sea retreats so the fishermen and other inhabitants of this peculiar settlement follow it, leaving behind on the stones whatever they no longer need. Everywhere was evidence of past endeavours, although I found no trace of the lighthouse on which Ravilious focused his attention, the so-called Low Light installed in the 19th century to supplement the main lighthouse.
'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is published by The Mainstone Press at the end of February.