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Dungenness: The Only Desert in the United Kingdom

Dungenness: The Only Desert in the United Kingdom

Picture of Hannah Bergin
Updated: 9 February 2017
With its incessant rain and lush, emerald-green hills, Britain does not likely come to mind as a place one might expect to find a desert. But implausible as it may seem, there is, in fact, a unique geological site on the coast of Kent, south-east England. We find out more.

Dungeness is in fact, a cuspate foreland – a long, vaguely triangular-shaped stretch of land that extends into the sea from the coastline, resulting from the build-up of various sediments that have been transported and deposited by the movement of water.

Though it is far from the image of scorching sand dunes and sweltering skies that one might associate with the Sahara for example – and there are certainly no camels to be found here. Dungeness is instead a ghostly stretch of chalky-white shingle, that lies incredibly still and silent under the pallid grey clouds.

Whilst Dungeness remains for the most part, largely ignored, there are a few remnants of life scattered about the headland. A functioning hamlet comprising a few small wooden houses is occupied primarily by coastguards and fisherman whose boats are moored upon the shingle, as well as the odd artist or hippy who has been drawn into the desert’s eerie silence seeking social seclusion and creative inspiration.

Eccentric English film director Derek Jarman in fact once owned Prospect Cottage – the iconic timber house painted black with striking yellow window frames, one side of which is emblazoned with the words of John Donne’s poem The Sunne Rising.

A rickety train track – so small it looks as if it might just serve a toy town, appears to have been completely abandoned but in fact transports tourists the length of the desert in just over an hour.

Besides this there is a fully-operational nuclear power station, alongside the crumbling skeleton of a former which closed in 2006. Several lighthouses have been constructed at the water’s edge over time, one of which remains whilst others lie in various stages of dereliction or have been completely demolished. Three large oval-shaped structures constructed in 1928, which previously operated as acoustic mirrors to detect invading aircraft, sit gloomy and forgotten on the sand.

Eerie and peculiar, almost apocalyptic in its desolateness, yet strangely beautiful, Dungeness has inspired various artists over the decades including Pink Floyd and Lighthouse Family, both of whom have used the headland as the locale for music videos and album covers. Dungeness has also featured in episodes of EastEnders and Doctor Who, whilst several times Academy-Award-nominated director Danny Boyle used the site for scenes in his 2013 film Trance .

By Hannah Bergin