Dungeness is a wilderness of pebbles, a sea of stone almost as vast as the sea itself. Flying over it in a light aircraft, as I have done once or twice, you can clearly see the great, copper-coloured waves formed by the high tides of long-gone ages. Sea-cabbage sprouts untidily, its rubbery leaves adapted to the salt air; yellow broom litters the place; marram grass grows in dishevelled tufts, occasionally interrupted by flowers with malevolent names like Viper’s Bugloss. Nothing sweet-sounding grows here. Precious little sweet-looking, either. This is a garden without a gardener, nature in rebellion, doing what it wishes and not what a landscape This was the place where I made a momentous discovery: the horizon is round. Brought up in the suburbs I had only ever appreciated it as a short, straight line between houses. At Dungeness you can turn and turn and turn, and still there is sky. You can understand how not so long ago men were sure that the world was flat and that they were scurrying about on it like ants on a plate.
For nine years I worked as a clerical assistant in an office overlooking the English Channel at Dungeness A Power Station, long-since decommissioned. Every now and then HQ in London would Send Someone. Most often it was the Courier, a cheerful, pipe-smoking cockney. Sometimes it was a PR man in a golfing sweater, or his companion the strained-looking photographer, burdened with tripods and light-meters and white umbrellas for reflecting the light. Occasionally it was a Graduate Trainee doing his or her obligatory six week stint of ‘grass roots’.
One of them happened to be staying close to where I lived, so I offered her a lift in to work on the first day. There she was, at eight-fifteen, poised at the edge of the pavement in a rather nice calf-length raincoat. I promised myself a trip to Oxford Street very soon. At first she was chatty but as we got closer to Dungeness she became quieter and quieter, gazing out of the passenger-side window with an expression of dismay, bordering on fright.
Suddenly I began to see the place through her eyes: the women potato-pickers with their headscarves and dangling cigarettes glaring at us from the side of the road; that piece of agricultural machinery trundling ahead – vast, pea-green, all prongs and spikes, it’s driver merely a pair of eyes in a mirror; the gravel-works – a sprawl of conveyor-belts on both sides of the road, prodding against the morning sky, chutes trickling black sand onto needle-pointed mountains of the same; the few trees carved into anxious, shaven shapes by the prevailing wind, and all along the road the crow-pecked corpses of foxes and rabbits killed by the night shift careering off home to their beds. No wonder.
My own first sight of Dungeness, when I went for the job interview, had not been that scary. I was into science fiction at the time and the distant prospect of the two stations, those sororal twins mushrooming out of the naked shingle and shimmering in the heat, fascinated me. The Approach Road was blue with Viper’s Bugloss and there were butterflies everywhere.
One was expected to be blasé about the view out over the Channel from the office window. When visitors remarked on its magnificence one was supposed to drawl, ‘Oh yes, but after the first few weeks you hardly notice.’ A lifetime would have been too short to dim my pleasure in that ever-changing landscape.
The beach was a busy place. One minute there would be a man and his dog, the next an entire school geography class come to examine shingle-deposition on this ‘unique, cuspate foreland’. Sometimes beach-feeding was in progress and a succession of little dumper-trucks buzzed back and forth, temporarily reversing the effect of something known as ‘eastward drift’ – the natural tendency of shingle from the western side of the point to be washed round by the tide and deposited on the eastern side – thus preventing the power stations from being washed into the sea. Sometimes there were skin-divers. There was also a mysterious wooden hut, with chimney, which moved up and down the beach although nobody actually saw it moving. Every now and then it disappeared altogether. Could it have been the Russians?
Once in a while the sun would shine gloriously. Thousands of seagulls would bounce past the second-floor windows and I would sit entranced, trying to guess which one was Jonathan Livingstone. The sea would bustle with porpoises, racing yachts, ferries and fishing-boats; battleship shapes would be strung out on the horizon like grey washing.
Then there were the days when it snowed for hours and one began to wonder childish, magical things like how could there be so many snowflakes, and did they think any last thoughts as they melted into the shingle or drowned themselves so delicately in the sea?
There were spring and autumn days when the wind howled around our flimsy windows, rattling the raised blinds and mocking the central heating; days when there were no ships at all, and the sea was white, hurling itself screaming onto the beach in the throes of some dreadful, dreadful grief; days when the sky looked as if some lunatic painter had had a go at it, streaking it with black and yellow, splotching it randomly with cerise. End-of-the-world days. Death days.
I didn’t leave for several more years, by which time the Graduate Trainee lady had become Head of Something at HQ. I never did get to Oxford Street to buy that raincoat, but I did leave with a landscape, and it has never left me.