Dungeness - then and now

I have had further correspondence with my blogging twin Dylan Wrathall. His recent dilemma, of whether to revisit an old, cherished stamping ground, got me thinking (sorry Mike Netherwood, more thinking coming up). What if I had not revisited Dungeness since the early golden days that I experienced there. What if I were to pay the place a visit for the first time since 1979? What would I find and would that cloud my happy memories of the place?

Fancy a bit of time travelling?...

The Bird Observatory
The modest, grey terrace in which the observatory is housed has changed. Parcels of land have been fenced off and planted. There is more growth along the southern side of the properties where there used to be barely a bush for a crest to hide in. The obs back garden comprised a slumped coal shed and a lone bush (I cannot remember what it was - an Elder?). Now it houses a ringing station plus a luxurious garden of various plants, the stand of Tree Mallow having played host to a fair list of bird species. Inside the obs is all change. The dank, damp kitchen which was stocked with third-hand utensils has recently be refurbished. The old bathroom lacked anything to wash in apart from a pair of sinks. Now you can take a shower. The old ringing room, that appeared as a cross between Steptoe's junk yard and a municipal museum now has a modicum of comfort aided by a large wall-mounted television with a wide choice of channels, plus wi-fi. There is a well stocked library. And I almost forgot - the rattling windows and penetrating coldness has been replaced by double-glazing and central heating. It really has changed for the better.
The recording area is more vegetated, strikingly so if you hadn't visited for 35 years. Where there were bushes there are now trees. Where there was grass there is now bush. Where there was shingle there is now grass. Shingle is, of course, still to be found, but in the trapping area it is slowly being covered. The fauna and flora has changed noticeably, from the loss of breeding Yellowhammers, the fall in Wheatear numbers, the colonisation of many butterflies and dragonflies... a book could be written about these changes there are so many.
Birding habits have changed. The clientele of the obs was mainly ringers. The number of people staying has reduced, but are unlikely to ring. Nobody (apart from PJG) used to look at gulls - they have evolved from a guilty pleasure into an onithological rite of passage.
The habit of all wandering off to the pub at the day's end has largely gone. The Britannia was never the best of pubs, but at least it was a pub. Now it is an open room that sells fish and chips until it all shuts up at 9pm.

RSPB reserve
In 1979 a wooden hut acted as a place to get your membership checked before you walked along to one of the two small hides. The assistant warden lived in a tiny caravan. Burrowes Pit  boasted numerous islands where several hundred Common and Sandwich Terns bred, along with one or two pairs of Roseate. Today the water level is so high the islands are metres under water, BUT... Look elsewhere and be amazed! Where there was disturbed shingle there are reeds. Where there were small excavations there is now a linked mosaic of habitats. Species that in 1979 just didn't appear in your notebook are now ever present - Marsh Harrier, Bittern, Bearded Tit, Cetti's Warbler, Little Egret. I could go on... There are hides aplenty, footpaths giving access to previously hidden areas and as for Dengemarsh, the previous dry fields have been turned into prime wetland. And back in those days the RSPB had no control over...

The sand bowls of the western edge that we used to scope and wander across are now heavily vegetated and have hides overlooking more top-notch wetland. We have swapped the free and easy access of 1979 for the more controlling regime of 2014, but the birding is undoubtably better.

Airport Pits
A wander across to these modest water bodies was always a pleasure, the feeling of peace and being in a wilder part of the peninsular as much a part of the attraction as was the hope of finding something of interest lurking in the shallow water. Try it today and you will end up having your collar felt by security men who would have been watching you intently from the airport.

Lade Pits
In 1979 we would drive up and park on the edge, scanning the water from the car and go walking over the back and sit on the concrete bowls, sun-bathing, chatting, birding. All off-limits now unless you know some holes in the fence.

Is there a better version of Dungeness? Does the shingle kingdom of 1979 hold more for me than the 2014 model? If I had returned to Dungeness after a 35 year gap, my first reaction would be a positive one. The RSPB reserve would be a revelation, as too would ARC. A stay at the observatory would have more comfort - far more comfort. What would be missing would be the freedom to wander - be it to the Airport Pits, Water Tower, Oppen Pits or the back of Lade. But the place would have retained its essence, wouldn't have lost its allure. It would not have disappointed. And what of those things that have been lost? Well, I still have my memories of them, so they are still with me, aren't they...


Paul Trodd said…
Spot on Steve and I fully agree regarding the extra wetland habitats created by RSPB for Bittern, Marsh Harrier and the like. Although I was never a Dunge regular I guess bird-wise the biggest change over that period has been the reduction in passage migrants but, of course, this is happening nationwide. As an addition, and I`m sure you`ll be able to confirm this, there is the nearby habitat of Cheyne Court much of which is accessible from the Woolpack end. As for the Obs, I only stayed their once in the last year of Bob Scott`s reign, and it was freezing cold and dank - oh for the joys of todays central heating and double-glazing!
Steve Gale said…
Thanks Paul. We were never regular visitors to the marsh until the winter, to look for the Bewick Swan flock and count the roosting Hen Harriers. We did this from The Woolpack. It wasn't until the 1980s that I did a bit more out there, but Cheyne didn't appear on my rada
Dylan Wrathall said…
Only folk of our generation will be able to understand the "Steptoes" reference. Yet another demonstration of how much we take for granted? - Dyl
Steve Gale said…
They're the ones that are missing out Dyl - "Aaarold!!!!!"
Alastair said…
I did love the place. Lot of memories. A few brilliant birds, lots of brilliant times and doing completely mad things. I've not been back there for a very long time, Louise and I had a day trip quite a lot of years ago now as she wanted to see Derek Jarman's garden (as did I). Interesting to hear of all the changes. One of the things I love about birding here on Orkney is that it is pretty much unregulated and uncontrolled and you can (on the whole) just wander where you wish. I used to love the airport pits at Dunge and birding all around Lade Pits. The habitat creation sounds excellent but I'm not a fan of walking from hide to hide etc, a hide might be a bit of a relief on the windy days mind. We've just had a fair bit of rain here and all my inland wader places are under water so this evening I had to try and find new spots, tromping across fields, finally with some success; I've a couple of possibilities to check out tomorrow, I guess at Dunge now a sluice gate is adjusted somewhere. My kind of birding is a bit selfish I know, as if there were piles of birders here it just wouldn't work but as there are hardly any of us and there are so many excellent spots it isn't a problem, I hardly ever come across another birder in the field, bit different from Dunge I suspect. I guess it's possible I'll not visit Dungeness again, but great memories.
Steve Gale said…
Oh yes Alistair, you were one of the gang back then! You must remember the 'all-nighters' at Keith's, listening to The Doors, Fairport Convention, Steve Hillage, Kevin Ayres... I'd better stop there or I'll start blubbing.
Alastair said…
Strangely I don't especially remember the music, slightly odd that as I'm well enjoying my music these days and stuff from that era as well, Slap Happy, Roy Harper, The Floyd to name but three. Haven't heard of Keith for a very long time.

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