Throughout our birding lives we will forge links with certain places that will become special to us. Some we will call patches, others even sanctuaries. But what of our very first visit to these places - was it love at first site (geddit)? I thought I'd investigate my two longest ornithological love affairs. Number One: Dungeness.
It appears an open waste of shingle, strewn with ramshackle dwellings and set against the backdrop of a vast nuclear power station that has squeezed perspective to such an extent that it appears two-dimensional, as if it were merely an enormous theatrical backdrop. Peering from the car making its way along the single road towards the peninsula’s point, I’m wondering what on earth I have let myself in for. I am about to join a four-day bird-watching course being held at Dungeness Bird Observatory.
I have a tenuous link to Dungeness from family trips taken to Camber Sands back in the early 1970’s. From there I had stared at the lines of pylons disappearing eastwards to converge menacingly at some distant point which I knew, from looking at my Father’s road atlas, to be a place called Dungeness. It had a nuclear power station. Even the name sounded disturbing, not unlike ‘dangerous’ or ‘dungeon’. To leave the comparative safety of the dunes at Camber and visit this nuclear theme park would be sheer folly, as I imagined it to be a poisoned shingle desert where all life had mutated.
But being driven there is what is happening to me on this early spring day. The focal point of our passage along to the peninsula’s snout is always the power station, dwarfing the two lighthouses that as recently as 1960 had been the tallest buildings for miles around. My attention then turns towards the shacks, half in wonder as to who could possibly live in them, the other half searching frantically in their small gardens for any movement that will betray the presence of a rare migrant bird – after all, Dungeness is famous for rare migrant birds. In my naivety I somehow expect that there will always be one about. (It will take years of disappointment to finally rid myself of this optimistic outlook.) I pass the new, smartly liveried lighthouse on my left and am soon upon the older, decommissioned version, which looks far more like what a lighthouse should do. It is squatter, fatter and looks as if it has stood firm and seen off many a storm. I can imagine heavily bearded men in cable sweaters manning the light during times of peril at sea. The new one smacks of not needing people at all – which in some respects it doesn’t. Terribly efficient no doubt but terribly bland all the same.
At the old light the road violently kinks and sends us on our way along the perimeter fence of the Power Station. We virtually cower from the monstrous buildings, not just one vast station but two, with a plethora of outbuildings, pipes, huts and industrial bric-a-brac spilling like innards from their sides. As we approach the cottages, which house the bird observatory, we note that they have seemingly been barricaded from the threat of nuclear fall-out with a high-sided moat. The road breaches this earth mound as if it were a lowered drawbridge. Entering the inner sanctum of the mound, there is, before me, the not unattractive end cottage, 11 Royal Naval Service Signal Station, Dungeness, Kent – otherwise known as Dungeness Bird Observatory. I don’t know it now, but I have just started an infatuation that will stretch obsessively for 15 years and carry on in a more sedate fashion for life.
I get out of the car with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, binoculars at the ready around my neck. My East German Zeiss 10x50’s swing as a heavy pendulum as bedding and food boxes are carried into the observatory. The building is musty. It obviously hasn’t seen any interior decoration for a while, if at all. The carpet is threadbare. The furniture has seen better days. Third-hand cooking utensils that live in a permanent damp fug populate the kitchen. I love it.
The common room door is unceremoniously flung open. In walks the warden of Dungeness Bird Observatory, Nick Riddiford. Five foot six in his socks, sporting long hair and a bushy beard. He’s dressed as if just returned from the High Arctic. When he speaks he betrays his West Country roots. His welcome is in the form of alerting us to the fact that there is a Mediterranean Gull hanging around the area. Christ! A Mediterranean Gull! We have barely even heard of one.