Elemental in Kent

We saw the nuclear power station at Dungeness long before we found the final little tarmac road that curved on past Prospect Cottage.

We stopped to consult a photocopy of an OS map, then looked around the lonely landscape for clues, stared at the power station in awe. We took a photograph, me in bike leathers, a shiney black helmet dangling from my paw “Where to now, fuckface?” I’m growling into the camera. Behind me the power station hums to itself tunelessly.

So, we picked a sorta road/track that lead towards the power station and set the 3 cylinder Triumph Trident 900 in the direction of the flat pebbled headland, across the tracks of some miniature railway, to where the beach smoothed out into slate blue sea in the far distance. To the right of us the nuclear power station crouched in intermittent shafts of sunlight drifting through the gaps in the grey cloud cover.

I looked at the landscape, swathes of pebbles running down to the shore and decided it definitely was a beach. There was a typically British grubby shoreline, tumbledown huts of bright yellow and blue, seagulls and the rhythmic whooshing noise of shingle shifting in the tide. It was a beach, but not what you’d call a pleasure beach. Clanky rusted winches and chains trailed across the spreading shingle, overturned boats lay drying in the wind, and driftwood comprised of the detritus from humanity’s industrial-scale over-working of the seas – huge coil springs seized with rust, discarded nuts and bolts as thick as two fingers, the matted twines of tangled trawler nets and the vast looming presence of the power station, lurking to the right. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but the sky seemed to glow with a storm-threatening phosphorescence here. The sandy coloured pebbles seemed to reflect the light of the evening sun back, bouncing into the scrappy grey rain clouds.

The single track road ran past a few scattered clapboard bungalows, set back from the road. The warmth of the sunny spells was whisked off, baffled and buffeted in the gusting wind. It was so bracing. We crawled along on the motorbike at a cautious 30mph, looking out for a sign. The road was little more than a wide path, the beach flowed right up to the tarmac on both sides.

And then we saw it, Prospect Cottage.

 

Notes on the garden

To the side of the cottage is a bed composed of two concentric squares, constructed from weathered railway sleepers. The plants are sparse, some dried out, some flourishing. Behind these, there are tall thin driftwood sculptures poking in clumps into the air – bamboo yellow canes, poles, rusted iron pipes, scarred and scored wooden beams upended. The vision is a denuded forest of driftwood reaching up and breaking through the long featureless line of the inland horizon. From a different angle the sculptures blend effortlessly in with the telegraph poles and rows of pylons that set their perpendicular lines against the stepped profile of the power station. At the front of the cottage low tufted shrubs and tight, intentional little piles of large greyish white stones, each stone the size of a fist, are planted unevenly amongst the shifting shingle. A circular pathwork of these stones surrounds a dark green springy shrub. At regular intervals along the outer rim of the circle some stones are standing on end, a miniature Avebury where sea-mice may sing to the full moon. A large rectangular bed stretches out before the door of the cottage, the edge is picked out in the same large grey stones. It is planted closely with creeping low spreading clumps, perhaps they’re aromatic herbs, perhaps it used to be an herb garden, perhaps even a physick garden. I dream away. Last year’s dry burdock teazles rasp in the wind, perennials scramble over and break free from the stoney borders, a profusion of self-seeding Californian Poppies freckle the bed with their paper orange blooms. The colours flow and merge into the same speckled sandy-hue of the endless beach. It seemed to me that the garden flowed right out of its surroundings – the sandy shingle colours blotched with low creeping green, the wide flat horizon cut through by uprights and poles, driftwood sea debris washed up entangled in new formations. The garden gathered up all these elements of the landscape, intensified them, distilled their quintessence, shaped them into visual patterns, formal and ramshackle.

To the right of the front door a sign read Prospect Cottage. A postcard in a window in the door told us that although Derek Jarman used to live there, he doesn’t any longer. The present occupier neither welcomed unexpected visitors, nor permitted the use of photographs or video recordings of the cottage for commercial purposes.

We slouched away, feeling slightly disappointed, slightly embarrassed to find ourselves nosing around in a complete stranger’s garden.

We shambled back onto the bike. The single track road trailed on a bit further, curving right, past a shanty restaurant/pub/working mans club, then straight on to the atomic factory. We turned the bike around in the pub car park and sat thinking for a moment.

I turned my back to the power station and gazed serenely across the foreland to the sea. I looked out at the shingle, glowing sandy-yellow, the murky grey sea shimmering sporadically in the dying sun, and felt a gusty loneliness in the place. Dungeness projects out into the sea here and I began to feel that I was on the last gravelly spit of land, on the last shore, sea on all sides. I felt myself swirled in a raw elemental landscape; sea beach sky. Water, earth, air, and the power station – fire. I felt small, exposed and vulnerable, just a handful of stones between me and the untamed brutality of sky, sea and nuclear fusion. My tranquility was laden with doom.

Suddenly I just wanted to get back on the road, we were hoping to find a boarding house in Hastings before nightfall and I was already exhausted by the imperceptible calm nuclear throb of the air, I was shuffling into disturbed sleepiness.

As we sped away, I watched the power station remain solid, still and monolithic on the horizon. The garden had smoothed away into distant beach, but the power station was still visible as we wound and trailed and threaded our way along improbably tortuous Kentish lanes, back to urbanity by nightfall.

 

Bella Basura 1999
From the pamphlet Necro-Tourist

 

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