In April 1976, I had booked accommodation 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 trip’s taken to Camber Sands. On a cool July afternoon in 1972, sitting on the edge of a picnic rug, bare feet pushed into the sand and a frown on my face, I looked around in petulant boredom. I didn’t want to be on the beach, this wasn’t my idea of having fun. The land all around was flat, allowing uninterrupted panoramic views which, for nothing better to do, I started to take in. To my left, maybe a couple of miles away, I could not help but notice several lines of electricity pylons on a frozen march eastward. They appeared to be converging at some distant point just out of view. The juxtaposition of the giant metal frames and the unassuming wilderness was disturbing. My vision was drawn eastwards time and time again – just what was this all about?
Later, after the sand-infused sandwiches and the warm lemonade had been consumed, with a little arm-twisting, my Father was persuaded to drive towards this ‘parliament’ of the pylons. We drove in bemused silence along a twisting road that flirted not just with the coastline but also the rows of high voltage cable overhead. The green fields quickly became shingle. The roadside fences increased in height and took on an altogether more menacing character. Disappointingly, on reaching a small town (Lydd), where a Norman church tower tried valiantly to take on the pylons, my Father and various squabbling siblings had seen enough, the car was turned and headed back westward. The discovery of where the power converged had yet to be made. But I was intrigued. Looking at my Father’s road atlas it seemed as if these power lines met at a place called Dungeness. Even the name sounded disturbing, not unlike ‘dangerous’ or ‘dungeon’. And, as if to confirm this uneasiness, it was the site of a nuclear power station. 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 four years later 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 got out of the car with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Bedding and food were carried into the observatory. The building was musty. It obviously hadn’t seen any interior decoration for a while, if ever. The carpet was threadbare. The furniture had seen better days. Third-hand cooking utensils populated the damp kitchen. I loved it!
What of the observatory building itself? You entered through a small, fortified porch, which had the front door placed on the eastern wall. This led 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 a junk shop. 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 sat on the floor, annoyingly in the way, but was tolerated as it transported a large heavy-duty box in which a 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 which 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 from the hallway was the common room, the heartbeat of the observatory, 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 the warden’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 that had been fed into 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 paid for the privilege to stay.
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.
On that first visit 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 whilst being serenaded by unseen Redshank and Oystercatchers; watching a Long-eared Owl drifting silently past on a perfectly still, golden evening at the Open Pits; walking 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. I also was aware of treading in the footsteps of my birdwatching hero, HG Alexander. I was at the place where he found his Cream-coloured Courser in 1916! His Kentish Plovers and Stone Curlews may have gone, but in my vivid imagination he was still here, wandering over the shingle, just out of view.