Someone recently asked me, “What is Dungeness like”?
Surreal and fascinating was my answer because, for me, these two words perfectly describe this otherwordly place. If you have watched the Mad Max films of a post-apocalyptic society then you will understand the vibe of Dungeness. Let’s face it – where on earth could you find a shingle beach, classed as a desert due to its vast size, housing a working nuclear power station.
Add to that two lighthouses, a scattering of unconventional and ramshackle dwellings, and an RSPB nature reserve. And let’s not forget one of the smallest passenger railways in the UK and a selection of disused fishing boats and implements randomly lying on the beach far from the water’s edge.
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Do you get the picture?
So the next question is, where is Dungeness?
Dungeness sits proudly at the most southernmost point of Kent’s beautiful coastline, close to Romney Marsh Nature Reserve. With its diverse landscape it is home to many animals and birds, including one-third of all UK plant species.
Dungeness is only a stone’s throw away from the medieval town of Rye, and Camber Sands, two popular East Sussex tourist destinations. Although it may not be as well-known as its neighbours, it makes a unique and unusual place to visit in its own right on a day out in Kent.
The easiest way to visit is by car. From the M20, leave at junction 10 and follow A2070 towards Brenzett and then the A259 towards New Romney. Turn right onto B2075 towards Lydd. Follow signposts in Lydd to Dungeness.
Free parking is available in the RSBP Nature Reserve car park at the top of the Dungeness Estate or along the beachside of Coast Drive.
If you haven’t got a car and can’t persuade a friend to bring you in theirs, then you will need to take a train to Ashford International station, and from there take bus number 11/11A or 11B to Lydd-on-Sea. Get off at The Pilot Inn, which happens to serve the best fish and chips in England according to local connoisseurs, and you will have arrived in Dungeness.
Alternatively, take a train to Rye, then jump on the 102 bus to Lydd-on-sea and stop at the same place.
On a clear day you can see the coast of France from Dungeness, a mere 29 miles away.
Map of Dungeness Kent
So where shall we go first in Dungeness?
I would suggest we start at the Pilot Inn in Lydd as that is close to where I parked and the buses’ dropping off point.
Amazingly, the original Pilot Inn was constructed in 1633 out of the wreck timbers of a Spanish ship called The Alfresia! Local smugglers lured the ship onto the rocks, murdered the crew and looted the cargo of alcohol. That poor Spanish captain had no idea when he set off that his ship’s timbers would be used to construct a pub in Dungeness!
Walk around the side of the Pilot Inn and see a fitting tribute to the airmen who lost their lives during bombing raids in WW2. The sculpture of an airman looking up at the sky next to the B17s propeller and engine and information plaque are a poignant reminder of what took place in the skies along the English coast during the wars.
Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway
Next to the Pilot Inn, you will see train tracks on either side of Battery Road. These are for the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, which opened as the ‘smallest passenger train in the world’, starting in the seaside town of Hythe and terminating by the lighthouse in Dungeness. It is no longer the smallest in the world, but is one of the smallest in the UK.
It is an iconic train ride and one that visitors have been enjoying since 1927. As the world-famous steam railway is one of Kent’s top attractions, pre-booking is essential. There are plenty of other things to do in Kent and you may want to include this train ride in your Kent staycation itinerary. The train arrives in Dungeness and gives visitors one hour to explore the surreal landscape before returning to Hythe.
The Dungeness Estate
Heading along Battery Road and past the signposts, you will see the entrance to the Dungeness Estate. The area is residential, although many homes lie empty for much of the year. It is a place that, due to its surrealism, attracts people from all walks of life, from artists looking for inspiration to professionals looking for a stark and barren place to get away from work pressures!
Most dwellings are of a ramshackle clapperboard appearance with fishing boats or buoys lying in the front gardens. However, a few recent additions have been designed with ultra-modern 21st-century touches, including decks and huge picture windows. These are rented out to holidaymakers looking for an escape from the norm. Dungeness houses do come up for sale but are often outrageously priced; I saw a run-down shack being advertised for £200K!
Dungeness’s shingle beach is wild and unforgiving and the sight of tumbleweed blowing across its expanse would fit the scene perfectly. Littered with battered wooden fishing boats and a few makeshift sheds selling locally caught fish, all adds to the unusual charm of Dungeness.
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One of the most famous residents of Dungeness was the English film producer Derek Jarman whose clapperboard cottage and sea-side garden attract a lot of interest. Yellow windows add a pop of colour against the black wooden boards used to clad the cottage, and is definately a pick-you-up on wild and windy winter days.
A featured poem on the outside wall called ‘The Rising Sun’ is a nod to Jarman’s love of prose, and in the garden, an old wooden boat, pebble stacks and driftwood remind you that despite the nuclear power station in the background, this is indeed a seaside location.
In summertime the shingle and shrub garden comes alive with colour from yellow gorse bushes, red poppies and pink foxgloves to name a few.
Visitors to the Dungeness Estate must follow certain codes of conduct. The wild landscape is often used for photoshoots and filming – both need a special permit. And private property is just that. Bold signs to “stay out” seem to shout their words out with such authority that you feel a shotgun may be produced if you dare disobey.
For me, the part I loved most about Dungeness was the random fishing boats just left on the beach. They were like art installations in their own right, and it was fun taking photographs next to them. I wondered why they were so far up the beach and what adventures they had encountered before their demise upon Dungeness’s shingle desert.
After my Dungeness photography opportunity with the boats, I stumbled (literally) across the rusted and twisted track lines strewn across the beach. Oddly out of place with no connection to the railway, what were they for? It turns out that fishers would put their carts on the tracks and pull their haul across the shingle either by hand or by horse to the roadside for onward transportation. Ingenious!
A Fishing Environment
Dungeness is not just a photographers dream, it is also a fully functioning work environment and considered one of the best places for fishing in the UK. You will see containers lined up shoulder to shoulder along the Dungeness coast where the fishers keep their equipment – this area is off-limits to the public. Dungeness beach fishing is allowed and I witnessed several anglers braving the winds as I walked along the beach.
Dungeness is not the place to come if you want to swim – the undercurrents are strong and dangerous. Head to the sandy beach just along the road at Greatstone or one of the other beautiful beaches scattered along the Kent coast.
I was totally hooked when I originally read that Dungeness was a desert – had someone gone crazy, how can a beach be a desert!
I discovered a desert is any barren area of landscape with little precipitation and the stark and mysterious Dungeness fits that ranking. There are four types of desert – Cold (Antarctica), Hot (Sahara), Coastal (shout out to Dungeness) and semi-arid (Arizona). Dungeness holds an unofficial title of being a desert but the shingle beach in Dungeness is bigger than any other shingle expanse in the world. So now you know!
Over the centuries, there have been eight different lighthouses at Dungeness. The most striking one is Dungeness’s current lighthouse standing 43m high and still in daily use. It is painted black and white to stand out to mariners during daylight and is a stark contrast against the bleak Dungeness landscape.
This lighthouse was built in 1961 as the warning lights on the “Old Lighthouse” were obscured by the newly commissioned nuclear power station. A modern boardwalk close by serves no other purpose than to lead across the beach and near to the water but is a great place to take photographs.
Built in 1904, The Old Lighthouse was the predecessor to the one shown above. It provided a warning beacon to passing sailors navigating Kent’s rough coastline for nearly 60 years.
The Old Lighthouse is next to a circular building that would have sat at the base of yet another earlier lighthouse called Wyatt’s Tower. Its purpose would have been to provide living quarters for the lighthouse workers.
Today visitors can climb to the top of the Old Lighthouse for fabulous views across Dungeness’s surreal scenery and find more out about the Dungeness lighthouses.
Dungeness Nuclear Power station
Without a doubt, the strangest thing about Dungeness is that it has a nuclear power station beside the sea. Reactor B will continue working until 2028. What struck me as weird was that people choose to live by a nuclear power station – I think I would be selling up pretty swiftly.
It probably doesn’t help that I recently watched Chernobyl on Sky and stood gazing towards the Dungeness Power Station, wondering what the after-effects would be if it exploded. I googled it when I got home and found an article from KentLive – quite a frightening article, don’t you think?
While having a nuclear power station on your doorstep is not what most people strive for, the award-winning Dungeness Visitor Centre at Reactor B is quite a tourist attraction. Book a tour and afterwards head to the Brittania Inn for refreshments.
Close by is the 1000 acre RSPB nature reserve, one of the best places for wildlife in the UK and designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Please make time to include a stop here when you visit Dungeness; it is an exceptional place. There is a 2-mile circular route around the reserve, and regular events like pond dipping and history talks are available to book.
If you love wildlife then Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is a 30-min drive away and offers another opportunity to explore the coastal and wetland landscape on either a 2-mile, 4-mile or 6-mile circular walk. Look out for bird-watching hides, WW2 “pillboxes” and a discovery centre new for 2021!
If you are in Kent looking for things to do or want to head to the coast on a day trip from London, then I definitely recommend checking out Dungeness.
I loved discovering the quirky landscape of Dungeness. It is unlike anywhere else I have ever visited, which made it so interesting and surreal.
Oh, and don’t forget to try the fish and chips at the Pilot Inn – the best in England!
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