The bleak beauty of Dungeness

The bleak beauty of Dungeness

With its wide-open expanse of shingle beach, Dungeness is a unique wildlife habitat and makes for a family day out with a difference, writes Zoe Rawlins

You don’t so much visit Dungeness as find yourself engulfed without warning by its untamed beauty and endless skies. Such was our experience when we ventured there on a day trip with our youngsters in late March. 

Dungeness, photo by Jim Higham

Dungeness, photo by Jim Higham

On the way, our journey through the low-lying salty marshlands and tidal creeks of nearby Romney Marshes was punctuated by chirrups of “when will we see the sea?” from the three young passengers on the backseat. We all agreed the sight and sound of seabirds overhead meant we couldn’t be too far away.

And suddenly there it was: a shimmering ribbon of silver in the distance, gradually widening into panoramic sea vistas as we edged down the peninsula road towards the southern tip, Dungeness Point.

Dungeness Lighthouse by Kent Wildlife Trust

Parking (for free) near the black and white lighthouse, we hustled out of the stuffy car and were instantly buffeted by a gusty wind which tangled hair and tickled noses. (Note one: bring snug-fitting hats and warm jackets.) The kids zigzagged in excitement along the rickety wooden boardwalk towards the beach, thrilled to finally see the sea up close. (Note two: bring a change of clothes for the child who’s inclined to miscalculate the speed of an incoming wave – yes daughter, I’m talking about you). 

Unique habitat

Down by the shore the pounding waves, sharp briny taste in the air and blinding sunlight provided a rich sensory experience – not to mention the burn of leg muscles working double time to navigate the shifting pebbles underfoot. Forget golden sand: the beach here is largely formed of smooth Ice Age flint and is one of the biggest expanses of shingle in the world. Needless to say, it’s not particularly pushchair-friendly.

Being surrounded by countless grey pebbles may not sound like the best beach experience - and yet Dungeness is one of the curious gems of the Kent coastline; indeed, its ethereal setting has over the years provided the backdrop for everything from fashion shoots to scenes in Dr. Who.

What’s more, these shingle ridges form a unique wildlife habitat and support a diverse range of insects and spiders, some of which are found hardly anywhere else in the British Isles. Home to more than 600 species of plants i.e. approximately one-third of all plants found in the UK, it's also an important breeding site for birds and a key migration stopover for swallows and swifts (visit Dungeness RSPB bird sanctuary: TN29 9PN). Offshore meanwhile, common and grey seals are regularly seen along with harbour porpoise and the occasional dolphin.

 

Cabbages and caterpillars

Insatiably curious about nature and the world around them, our three budding naturalists shot off to explore. “I’ve found a beach cabbage!” yelled middle child, peering at a crinkly-leafed cluster sprouting up defiantly through the bone-dry stones. Green and tinged with purple edges, we later discovered it was a type of edible sea kale.

Next came demands from our eldest to identify the clusters of brown hairy caterpillars he found clinging for dear life in the wind-battered bushes further up the beach. Interested in neither cabbages nor caterpillars, our youngest entertained himself by merrily rolling at top speed down the shingle before sifting one by one through the smooth pebbles for the ultimate skimming specimen.  

 

Diverse Dungeness

When you’ve had enough of the beach you could wander to Dungeness railway station for a steam-powered ride on the narrow gauge RH&DR (www.rhdr.org.uk), climb the grade II-listed Old Lighthouse for spectacular views of the English Channel (and France on a clear day) or visit the RNLI Lifeboat Station. We opted for a fish and chip lunch at The Britannia Inn (www.britanniadungeness.co.uk), a two-minute walk from the beach, and it was excellent. Highchairs and baby changing facilities available.

If you like a calm cove with golden sand where little ones can build sandcastles, then Dungeness is unlikely to tick any boxes. But if you’re up for a sturdy blast of fresh sea air mixed with a wild expanse of beach for the kids to run wild and let off steam – and possibly spot some rare wildlife – then Dungeness takes some beating. It also officially wins top marks from our youngest for ‘beach with the best skimming stones’.