Becoming shingle minded

Part 11 - April 1976  I had booked onto an RSPB/YOC course to be held at Dungeness Bird Observatory, in Kent, along with my birding friends Mark and Neil Greenway. Being one of the places that was dear to HG Alexander's heart, I was more than a little excited about being there, but my first impressions as we drove onto the peninsula were not favourable. It appeared an open waste of shingle, strewn with ramshackle dwellings and set against the backdrop of a vast nuclear power station that had squeezed perspective to such an extent that it appeared two-dimensional, as if it were merely an enormous theatrical backdrop. Peering from the car as it made its way along the single road towards the peninsula’s point, I wondered what on earth I have let myself in for. 

I had tenuous links to Dungeness from family trips taken at Camber Sands a few years earlier.  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. Apparently there was 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 was happening to me on this early spring day. The focal point of our passage along to the peninsula’s snout was always the power station, dwarfing the two lighthouses that as recently as 1960 had been the tallest buildings for miles around. My attention then turned 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 would betray the presence of a rare migrant bird – after all, Dungeness was famous for rare migrant birds. In my naivety I somehow expected that there would always be one about. We passed the new, smartly liveried lighthouse on our left and were soon upon the older, decommissioned version, which looked far more like what a lighthouse should do - squatter, fatter and strong. I imagined heavily bearded men in cable sweaters manning the light during times of peril at sea. The new one smacked of not needing people at all – which in some respects it didn’t. Terribly efficient no doubt but terribly bland all the same.

At the old light the road violently kinked and sent us on our way along the perimeter fence of the Power Station. We virtually cowered 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 approached the cottages, which housed the bird observatory, we noted that they had seemingly been barricaded from the threat of nuclear fall-out with a high-sided moat. The road breached this earth mound as if it were a lowered drawbridge. On entering the inner sanctum of the mound, there, before us, was the not unattractive end cottage, 11 Royal Naval Service Signal Station, Dungeness, Kent – otherwise known as Dungeness Bird Observatory. I had unknowingly just started an infatuation that would last for life.

I got out of the car with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, binoculars at the ready around my neck. Bedding and food boxes were carried into the observatory. The building was musty. It obviously hadn’t seen any interior decoration for a while, if at all. The carpet was threadbare. The furniture had seen better days. Third-hand cooking utensils populated the damp kitchen. I loved it!
After meeting our course leader, Peter Robinson, the common room door was unceremoniously flung open, and in walked the warden of Dungeness Bird Observatory, Nick Riddiford. He betrayed his west country roots as he welcomed us with the fact that there was a Mediterranean Gull nearby. Christ! A Mediterranean Gull! I wanted to leave at once to search for it. Buoyed by this exciting news a few of us ventured out onto the area of shingle due east of the observatory -  overflowing with excitement and anticipation as only the young and naive can. To illustrate our state of high excitement, a Skylark was flushed and landed a few yards ahead of us. I knew it was just a Skylark, and so did the others, but this was Dungeness! Try as we might to turn it into a Thekla Lark (or at least a Short-toed), it refused to be anything other than what it actually was. Some compensation came when a Black Redstart flashed into view by Lloyd’s Cottage. This was a new species for me. I stared across the open shingle to the north and east of me, with just small patches of gorse and broom breaking up the honey coloured ground. The horizon is far. The sky is big. I liked this place.

We were given a thorough grounding in observatory life and a whistle-stop tour of the varied habitat to be found in the vicinity of the peninsula. Vivid images from these few days were to replay in my mind, and still do to this very day: looking towards the heavily lit power station at night as we went wader ringing at Lade Pits, surrounded by unseen calling Redshank and Oystercatchers; watching a Long-eared Owl drifting silently past on a perfectly still, golden evening at the Oppen Pits; walking out to the far-flung Airport Pits, leaping ditches and flushing Grey Partridges; a second-year Mediterranean Gull that looked shockingly exotic (for a gull) on the ARC pit; meeting the long-haired and bearded Ray Turley, who was seawtaching on the beach, dressed in biker's leathers. The daily routine of the observatory seeped its way into me and the idea of what a ‘proper’ observatory day entailed was forming in my mind: getting out of bed before dawn; helping erect mist nets in the half-light; alternating between drinking tea, chatting and birding until lunch; sea-watching for a couple of hours; checking the recording area for migrants; going back down to the sea until early evening; having a last look around the moat before dark; and finally sitting in the common room and partaking in the calling of the log. This last act was one that I thoroughly enjoyed, an amalgamation of everybody’s observations in the DBO recording area during the day. It gave meaning to the counts that I was amassing in my notebook. It took on the feeling of a religious act, from the handling of the leather-bound log sheets to the incantation of each species name, read out by the warden in scientific order.

What of the observatory building itself? You entered through a small, fortified porch, which had the front door placed on the eastern wall. This lead to a narrow hallway, with stairs on the left. From a line of pegs along the wall hung a collection of assorted jackets, mostly weatherproofed and in various stages of disrepair. These did not appear to belong to anybody in particular, seemingly abandoned. A cupboard under the stairs housed the electricity meter (which accepted 50 pence pieces) and an ageing selection of household cleaning agents, whose price tags hint at days gone by - pre-decimalised days to be precise. To the right was the ringing room, which reminded me of a cross between a provincial museum and the Steptoe’s front parlour. It was an Aladdin’s cave of bric-a-brac, with virtually no visible wall space. This was hidden behind cupboards crammed full of equipment, cases of stuffed birds (Shelduck, Pintail, Long-tailed Duck), cabinets of bird skins, cardboard-boxes overflowing with paperwork, chaotic piles of books, ancient scientific instruments, fading posters and old black-and-white framed prints. An old pram gets in the way, but was tolerated as it transported a large heavy-duty box in which the binocular telescope was housed. At the far end of the room, in front of the windows, was a wooden shelf. Above this, a line of cord was strung between the walls, on which were placed a series of hooks. Laid out on the shelf were the tools of the ringer’s trade – different sized rings (for different sized birds), pliers (for enclosing the rings around the bird’s legs), rulers (for measuring a bird’s wing length), pesolas (for recording a bird’s weight), callipers (for taking other measurements such as bill and tarsus length) and an obligatory copy of ‘Svennson’s’, the Holy Bible of how to identify, age and sex species in the hand. A wooden chest was hidden underneath the shelf and this was stuffed to overflowing with bird bags. These hand-made bags (fashioned from any old material) had a string-pull opening, into which the trapped birds were placed. This was done for the ease of transporting the bird from trap to ringing room, but also because it calmed the bird down. These bags, when with bird, were then hung onto the hooks above the shelf. The catch would then be processed. All information gathered would be written into a log book and the bird then released back into the wild, through a small opening in the window, in the hope that this bird will be subsequently recovered and such information as its movement and longevity would be learnt.

Straight ahead was the common room, the heartbeat of the observatory, a room dominated by a large table around which hard wooden chairs were placed. Comfort was but an afterthought. A radiogram (it really was that old) sat on the window-sill and proved its worth when we gathered to listen to the shipping forecast, hoping that conditions would be favourable for a fall of birds at Dungeness. Cupboard space was in plentiful supply. Across one wall a notice board was festooned with information leaflets and notices, mostly produced in Nick’s spidery handwriting. From here you gained access to the small, but well equipped kitchen. A back door lead into a tiny yard where a dilapidated and slumped coal shed spewed its contents - a medley of wire, off-cuts of wood and coal - onto a small area of weeds. There was also an outside toilet, which only the brave, desperate or foolhardy actually used.

Back inside, and moving up the steep, narrow stairs, you reached the first floor (not before negotiating a wickedly tight turn and a sign that read ‘No muddy boots’). To the left was a bathroom with two small basins, an ancient washing machine and a toilet cubicle that had been added as an afterthought. The next door along found the warden’s room and opposite that was a large bedroom which boasted a panoramic view of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. Continuing up the final flight of stairs took you into the top floor bedroom, which had five beds. In the far corner of the room was a door, which lead to a smaller bedroom affectionately referred to as ‘The Firetrap’ due to the lack of exits provided should flames sweep the building. All the bedrooms were stocked with old, uncomfortable beds, fit for a convention of masochists. The mattresses were thin and obviously once belonged to a home for the incontinent before DBO gratefully inherited them. The pillows were lumpy and dirty. Piles of damp, grubby blankets were free to be used. The Hilton it wasn’t. There was no central heating. Cold could be combated with a couple of electric fires that, once plugged in would make little difference to the room temperature, while eating up all of the 50 pence pieces in the meter. The original sash windows, while charming, were draughty and rattled with the merest hint of wind. For some reason I found all of this acceptable and, what’s more, actually payed for the privilege to stay here.

A feature that appealed to me was that each window had a checklist of birds taped to it - we were invited to add to the tally of species seen from them. I was surprised to note that every window had Rough-legged Buzzard ticked off of the list. Enquiries revealed that the 1974 Rough-leg invasion sent a couple to wander the peninsular for several weeks. This inspired me to sit and look out from them, desperate to add a tick to the list. On this visit, I was unsuccessful.

I returned home with Dungeness buzzing in my head. I felt at home there and had enjoyed not only the birding, but the place itself. It had hidden depths that I wanted to trawl and explore. I would be back, that was for sure. 


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