Dungeness: A Day in Britain’s Only Desert

Last weekend we were looking to get out of London and explore some place new. A friend of ours recommended Dungeness in Kent and after some research we were all intrigued. It has been dubbed “Britain’s only desert” due to its bleak landscape and its dryness. Dungeness has the largest expanse of shingle beach in Europe where you’ll find rare plants and desert flowers. There are houses built atop used Victorian railway carriages from 100 years ago. It’s eerily empty expanse draws filmmakers, photographers and artists. In addition, it’s also famous for its nuclear power station called Dungeness B that may be toured while visiting the area.

The lack of surface vegetation here is remarkable, it really doesn’t resemble the green lushness and rolling hills of England that we’re so used to. It looks naked and windblown. And the wind! It really is spectacular there as we all fought to stand upright. The girls and I had our hair tangled and tousled, our faces were bright red and it was much cooler than at home in London. I’m grateful we all chose to wear some extra layers.

The first and most interesting place for us to explore was the shingle beach with its scattered treasures. It looks like some apocalyptic scene with wrecked boats, rusted iron parts, falling down shacks and desertion. We were nearly alone and I felt my skin prickle looking out at the mesmerizing debris. It was like I was on the set of some spooky movie and the world was ending or I was about to run from zombies. Ironically, it is also very beautiful in its own way. Immediately, the kids started climbing into abandoned boats, gathering stones and examining the remains of another time. We could have easily spent the afternoon combing the beach and searching through it all.

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We climbed, with little effort, to the top of the The Old Lighthouse to admire the view of this barren landscape. I believe it was 169 steps to the top – so it is less than walking up from Covent Garden tube station. I could imagine someone with a fear of heights would have trouble due to the openness of the staircase that spirals upwards along the interior wall of the lighthouse while the entire time you can look down through the interior of the structure. I like a view and will climb anything if I have something new to see, however, I don’t like to look down in this way. I kept my eyes focused on the steps and it was fine.

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We were warned ahead of time that the wind at the top feels 10 times worse on the outside observation deck and to remove hats and sunglasses before the climb. As I would be distraught without my Oakleys, I nestled them safely in my jacket pocket. I heard laughter descending as Stephen and the kids reached the top floor. The wind was unbelievable and it made us feel like we were flying. Fiona and James welcomed me to the observation deck with their arms outstretched in the air, laughing and preparing to take off. The view from the top captured the stark landscape beautifully. Dry, brown land with green shrubbery for as far as I could see. The power station loomed to the west and the beach scattered with its relics sat to the east. We could see the miniature steam train slowly meandering on its way to Hythe. This place is surreal!

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Miniature steam train

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Britannia Inn

We ate lunch at the Brittania Inn which was nothing to write home about. A greasy pub which probably had delicious fish and chips. Sadly, for a family that prefers healthy fresh vegetables our choices were limited. They have a kid’s menu with several choices for your little people if you are in town and haven’t packed a lunch.

We love to look for geocaches when we are somewhere new. If you haven’t done this with your kids yet you must stop reading this now and go install the app on your phone…seriously. It provides the whole family with a never ending treasure hunt and who doesn’t like searching for treasure? It’s free entertainment and they are hidden everywhere in the world. When we were done with our sightseeing we opened the app and found three caches in our area. One by one we found them and added our names to the list of fellow geocachers that came before us (note: be sure to bring a pen!). We worked together following the clues. Some caches were tricky and required a few passes by the same place, but we all were giddy when they were found.

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The drive to Dungeness was around 2 hours and we arrived here around 1pm. We wished we had left a bit earlier to squeeze in more, as there are several things of interest to do. However, we managed to have fun and spent time exploring things that we were drawn to. If you are planning a day here some other options are:

Dungeness Nature Reserve – An amazing location for wildlife and nature lovers alike. The lot and visitor centre is filled with people wearing camouflage, carrying telescopes in one hand with binoculars slung around their necks. There are guided walks through the marsh where migratory birds are common this time of year. Apparently the entire area is home to more than 600 species of plants, many of them unique to this area of the UK. Children visiting with their parents enter for half price and kids under 5 are free.

Miniature Railway – We were interested in a ride on the miniature railway but had to pass as it was longer than we could spend timewise. At 4pm the only option for us was a thirty minute ride each way and we still had the lighthouse to climb. It looked like a fun way to travel and our family of five probably would have had a private car to ourselves. I watched as it was leaving the station, the adults heads reaching the ceiling in their compartments. It looked comfy, intimate and fun with children’s faces excitedly smiling as the wheels began to move. Another time perhaps…

 

 

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