If you ever find yourself standing at Dungeness, crouch down and pick up a pebble. Any pebble will do. Weigh it in the palm of your hand. Roll it around between your fingertips and feel its smoothness and its imperfections. What shape is it? Round? Oval? It could be either of these or it could be one of a multitude of other shapes. The chances of you having chosen this particular pebble defy the odds, a contemplation and calculation that would drive you mad and be born of folly. This shingle beach is vast - eight square miles of exposed beach to be precise with an additional four buried beneath sand and soil. And this beach has depth. You are standing on shingle that plummets metres beneath your feet. That’s billions upon billions of individual pebbles. And you have just chosen this particular one. A representative of the area’s violent geology, recent when compared to the old hills further to the north.
Five thousand years ago - in an area of sea just west of Dungeness that is today Rye Bay - we would have found offshore barrier beaches that were constantly shifting with the insistence of the tides. Over several thousand years this shingle was moved and deposited in stages eastwards and started to accumulate on tidal sands. Each mini era of activity formed shingle ridges, mimicking the waves that had given birth to them, and within each peak and swell was laid bare the genesis of the place that would later become the Dungeness that you are now standing on, holding that pebble. As much as this process was a gradual one, at times, during the dark ages, great storms quickened proceedings, not only reconstructing the shoreline with brutal immediacy but also altering the flow of the nearby rivers. The area inland from all of this activity was a volatile place too, what with the rising of the landmass, formation of marshland and periodic inundation of the sea. Man had also played his part in altering the landscape to serve his own needs, draining it to create fertile farmland and the building of sea walls to protect these precious gains from the very element that he had stolen them from.
Written accounts do exist of what happened on a February day in the late 13th century, and even today meteorologists still refer to this event as one of the fiercest storms ever recorded. There were, apparently, portents – a red moon that shone a sickly light over the shingle shoals and marshland; a relentless gale force wind that refused to subside; a flooding high tide that allowed no ebb between its next, equally high incursion and mountainous waves that crested with thick white spume. The marauding sea tore across the beaches and temporarily took back the marshes far inland. Two sleepy coastal hamlets were cast aside and dragged down into a watery grave.
Such was the force of the storm that enormous quantities of shingle were ripped from the peninsula, and, together with mud and soil from the hinterland, all were transported northwards, to be dumped, with little ceremony, at the feet and over the ankles of the inhabitants of New Romney, a few miles to the north. This harbour silted up in a matter of hours and was sealed from the sea; the level of the land rose by five inches in a day; the river which had exited into the English Channel found itself dramatically diverted over 15 miles to the west. Overnight the bustling port found itself a mile from the sea that had, until the day before, lapped against its streets. It is not too fanciful to claim that Dungeness had, in effect, killed off the port. Even after such murderous manoeuvres, Dungeness still remained in place, albeit cruelly scoured by the storm. It was a day that irrevocably changed the geology of the area.
Even today, the beach has not finished forming and will continue to do so. Its western shoreline wants to migrate northwards and eastwards, while the east of the peninsula feels compelled to head towards the southeast. Standing on this land is taking a ride on a slow – a very slow – geological rollercoaster. The beach extends much further inland than most other beaches dare venture. Man has tried to halt its advance as much as the sea tries to throw the loose shingle back on dry land.
Over time wind-born detritus has lodged between the pebbles and given refuge for the seeds of pioneer plants to germinate. Generation after generation have flowered and died, giving more volume to the burgeoning soil, and so more room for plant life to establish. Wet spells, droughts, varying water-table height and drying winds have helped or hindered the botanical community of this beach into what is present today.
What colour is Dungeness? For a place constructed of billions of stones it is surprisingly varied. It depends on the current weather conditions. It depends on the season. It also depends on the time of day. Look at the pebble that you picked up again and now glance down at those by your feet. No two pebbles are the same, are they. What appears to be a mono-coloured landscape is one made up of a multitude of colours. There’s white, brown, buff, honey, copper, purple, blue, grey and every colour in-between. Some are multi-coloured, others of a single hue. At times, viewed on mass, the shingle can appear sandy. When the sun comes out it appears as if it has been smothered in honey. And then a cloudbank comes along and everything takes on the hue of grey sludge, although if you are looking into an oncoming storm, the dark clouds then casts the shingle as a contrasting powder white or a shimmering silver. A sun-kissed dawn or a red-skied evening paints the landscape with wide brush-stokes of gold and pink. Botanical forces also come into play, which, during the spring and summer, transforms a land of stone into one of flower, colouring the landscape with wild abandon – a panoramic rusty red from Sheep’s Sorrel; subtle green-creams of Wood Sage; lemon blots of Cat’s-ear; smoky white banks of Nottingham Catchfly; random golden smears of Bird’s-foot Trefoil; star spangled splatters of yellow, white and blue from Stonecrops and Sheep’s-bit; vibrant purple pronouncements from spikes of Viper’s Bugloss; and the confection of reds, pinks and whites of the ubiquitous Red Valerian. Every year is different depending on the fortunes of the plants themselves. In 2012 there was a mass flowering across the peninsula that created, for those who saw it, a never-to-be-forgotten botanical visual overload. Luckily enough, during that year I spent the whole of July at Dungeness and possess a photographic record of that wonderful time. Even during the winter, the stone has contrast with lichens and mosses, whose subtle colours and intricate structures soften the hardness and break up the mass.
And we cannot introduce Dungeness without paying homage to the Big Sky. We stand on flat ground, with no appreciable rise until reaching the old sea cliffs several miles inland. The nuclear power station may dwarf the lighthouses and the churches at Lydd and New Romney, but even these buildings cannot compete with what is above them, a sky that reaches the horizon without interference, that looms up with almost an absurd feeling of weight. It makes you feel small, insignificant, vulnerable. These feelings are doubled if you walk out across the sands at low tide, opposite the lifeboat station, and look back inland. Now, at distance, the power stations are only just peeking above the shingle ridge. They have lost any visual power that they had. The sky is bigger. Heavier. Mightier. Now slowly turn 360 degrees. An emptiness of sand and sea. You are the tallest object for what seems to be miles. You will never feel so exposed.