There are few, if any, genuinely wild landscapes left in the UK. The length of human occupation and density of population have put paid to them. But two hours south of London on the Kent coast is landscape both weird and wild. Dungeness forms the southern seaward boundary to Romney Marsh, projecting out into the English Channel like an upturned snout. A great shingle bank, the largest on the planet (after Cape Canaveral), it is constantly growing as more and more shingle is washed up and sticks to the promontory.
The shore is littered with beached fishing boats and trawlers ancient and modern, rusted tractors, prototype early warning defence systems, two lighthouses and a miscellany of huts and holiday “shacks”. Over it all looms the great concrete slab of Dungeness A nuclear power plant. This working landscape has some fabulously Heath Robinson-style touches; on one visit I admired the ingenuity of a fishing boat slipway made out of redundant central heating radiators. The next time I was there they were gone; taken by the sea, perhaps, or maybe a scrap metal merchant. Tenuous transport links – even today there are only two roads in and out of Dungeness – and the barrier formed by Romney Marsh have kept the region remote, underpopulated and, for centuries, uninviting; historically it was a hotbed of smugglers and malaria.
Dungeness may look rough and ready, but it is also incredibly rich in biodiversity. The peninsula is home to more than 600 species of plant (around a third of the UK total) and numerous rare invertebrates, and is a summer haunt of one of the apex predators, the marsh harrier. If it were closer to commuter-belt Surrey someone would have tried to tidy the place up long ago, but Dungeness’s remoteness has preserved its ramshackle beauty and diversity of plant species and wildlife.
Wind exposure is a near constant at Dungeness, and it’s laden with salt that rapidly desiccates and scorches plants that are not adapted to cope with it. The wind also “prunes” plants, pinching out the soft young foliage, resulting in stunted, one-sided growth. By the seafront, the shifting shingle and lack of soil make it difficult for plants to get established, and only the pioneer species make it. The edible sea kale, Crambe maritima, is one, forming a dome of thick, crinkly-edged cabbage-like leaves with a glorious blue grey colouring. In spring the emergent growth is tinged with purple, and the waxy leaves catch dew drops and hold them like transparent pearls. Thick, glaucous foliage helps to hold moisture and reflect sunlight, and an incredibly long taproot, up to 6m long, anchors the plant effectively. In early summer the sea kale produces sprays of tiny white flowers with yellow centres. These are deliciously fragrant, reminiscent of honey, and are followed by small pale green seeds that fade to white and look rather like mistletoe. There is more sea kale here than anywhere else on the English coast. Aside from being beautiful to look at, it is delicious steamed and served with butter. But it reputedly accumulates the highest levels of radioactivity from the power station of any plant on the ’ness.
The sea pea (Lathyrus japonicus) is another pioneer. A straggly looking plant with the same blue-grey waxy leaf adaptation as the sea kale, it has an extraordinarily wide distribution: Asia, the Americas and Europe. Its successful colonisation is explained by the resilience of its seed, which can stay viable in seawater for up to five years. So the sea pea has floated its way to domination. Far less common are the small colonies of lizard orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum) found inland of the strandline, and the single colony of early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) on the shingle near the power station. There are also species of broom (Cytisus scoparius) and blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) that are unique to the peninsula. In the face of constant wind, these “mutants” are permanently, and distinctively, prostrate.
There are numerous species of lichen at Dungeness too, some of which are very rare. They seem to coat just about everything, dead and living, turning rusted metal green and old timber bright orange. They, and the other rare species present, mean that the peninsula has the highest levels of state protection for landscapes.
One gardener who learnt to harness the genius of the native plants and augment them with like-minded compatriots was the late Derek Jarman. The film-maker, painter and writer bought Prospect Cottage, a fisherman’s shack, in the mid-1980s. The garden started with beach-combed objects such as sun-bleached flints that he used to create flowerbed edges. The book tracing its development, Derek Jarman’s Garden, is one of the greatest garden stories, exquisitely photographed by Howard Sooley, made poignant as Jarman’s health was declining while the garden grew. Jarman admired the endemic sea kale and planted its much bigger cousin, Crambe cordifolia, alongside it in his garden. The giant sea kale is exactly that, 1.8m tall with a rosette of coarse, dark green leaves. From that rise flower-spikes that in early summer open into cloudy sprays of white flowers with the airy quality of Gypsophila, but on a larger scale. Crambe cordifolia is almost as tough as C maritima, and is certainly as drought-tolerant.
Jarman sowed seed of the field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) that grow among the coarse grasses around the ’ness, and also those of the Californian poppy, Eschscholzia californica, which has a much longer flowering season than the field poppy and forms enduring colonies. The trick to ensuring the longest flowering display is to cut back two-thirds of the plants to ground level after the first flush, so they regrow and flower again, while the remainder set seed and increase the colony. The long seed pods of Eschscholzia are reminiscent of a native poppy that thrives on the shingle, Glaucium flavum, the yellow horned poppy. Coarse, glaucous leaves immediately give this away as a drought and exposure-tolerant plant. Clear yellow flowers are followed by the feature that gives the plant half of its common name; long, curving, hornlike seed pods. On hot days these burst open with an audible crack, flinging seed around the beach.
Prospect Cottage isn’t open to the public but the front garden can be seen from the road. The black varnished shack with its sunny yellow window frames is immediately recognisable. The best way to take it in is as part of a circular walk that encompasses it, the shingle beach and the two pubs, conveniently located at either end of the peninsula should a liquid reward or superb fish and chips be required.
The greatest challenge in making a seaside garden is protecting plants from the desiccating, salt-laden winds. Apart from hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata), few of the shrubs that thrive inland will work as seaside windbreaks. This can be particularly troublesome when trying to plant a hedge. Olearia macrodonta is one that will. It’s vigorous to 6m with greyish green leaves and white daisy flowers and can be kept trimmed. Griselinia littoralis and Hippophae rhamnoides can also be grown as hedges, the latter a good burglar deterrent; it’s equipped with some tasty spines.
Salt-tolerant trees include the holm oak, Quercus ilex – which also makes a good hedge – and the lovely, compact Crataegus x persimilis ‘Prunifolia’, which has superb autumn colour. The common alder (Alnus glutinosa) and many of the pines will also withstand an exposed, seaside location. Plant small or with seriously heavy-duty anchoring systems if the tree is to remain upright.
Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries in London