Weird world of Dungeness
The strikingly barren landscape of Dungeness sits in the shadow of two nuclear plants, neither of which are producing power. John Johnston visits one of Britain’s most unusual places.
The tiny hamlet of Dungeness is scattered across a seemingly endless shingle headland on a desolate stretch of the Kent coastline. Curving around the south-east edge of Romney Marsh, its lowland location provides views for miles both inland and out towards the Channel, and, when the weather is clear, a glimpse of the French coastline. Looking out from the coastal road, bright red poppies provide the only burst of colour amidst a backdrop of grey skies, abandoned winch huts and the rusted carcasses of beached fishing boats.
Despite throngs of tourists snapping away with their cameras, even on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon, it would be wrong to describe it as picturesque. It’s a barren, desolate landscape, often wrongly described as the UK’s only desert because of its unique micro-climate. Home to many plants, animals and birds that exist nowhere else, a third of all UK plant species are found at Dungeness.
Of the homes dotted across the shingle, around 25 are made from converted rail carriages, sold to redundant workers of an old railway line that went out of operation in the late 1930s. Scattered haphazardly, their characteristic sloped roofs are still visible, including one, Prospect Cottage, which was occupied by the artist Derek Jarman from 1986 until his death in 1994; he cultivated an garden out of beach trash and flotsam that is a work of art in itself.
The remaining housing stock is mostly made up of impressive modern builds and conversions; with their sharp edges and matte cladding, many would not look out of place in an episode of Grand Designs.
Perhaps the most apt description of the place comes from 19th century author and cleric Richard Harris Barham, who is attributed with writing: “The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh.”
All this is why it’s easy to forget that Dungeness also sits in the shadow of two nuclear power plants. In any other location, the presence of hulking nuclear reactors would likely damage the tourist trade, but here it seems to add yet another dimension to its other-worldy feel.
Dungeness A, first connected to the National Grid in 1965, ceased producing power in 2006, with a defueling programme completed in 2012.
Dungeness B, owned and operated by EDF Energy, came online in the early 1980s and after being granted several extensions was due to continue producing power until 2028.
But in 2018, the plant was forced to close for essential maintenance, with initial plans for a 12-week stoppage and an estimated £30m repair bill.
Three months turned into almost three years, and the £30m cost spiralled to more than £100m as further problems were identified, including issues with the main steam line and corrosion in the pipework. Still, they hoped the plant would come back online, setting a proposed August 2021 deadline.
However, in early June, the energy giant announced that further investigations had uncovered problems with components within the reactor which could not be fixed and pulled the plug, ending the 50 year history of nuclear power in Kent.
The plant, which has created enough low-carbon energy to supply every home in Kent for more than 50 years, will now begin the process of defueling, a programme that could last almost a decade.
John Benn, the station director, told The House the decision was a “difficult one, but the right one,” adding that the unique design of the plant meant that most of the 800 staff working on the site would be retained throughout the defuelling process.
“Some of our stations can switch off some of the components that they don’t need, therefore reducing the maintenance and the numbers on site. We don’t have that.
“We are going to need 95 per cent of the systems, so we don’t envisage any job reductions, certainly in the short term as we work through the details and preparations in the early stages of defuelling.”
It’s a commitment that Benn hopes will provide reassurance to the local community and the workers at the plant, almost all of whom live within a one mile radius of Dungeness.
For those living in the hamlet, close enough to hear the gentle hum of the station from their front door, there is a feeling of nonchalance about the news. The plant has already been offline for years, and it will continue to function in one form or another for many years to come. Visitor numbers have boomed in recent times, and they see no reason why that will change.
A hundred yards from the perimeter fence, an elderly couple, Tim and Doreen, sit eating ice cream from a nearby cafe. One gazes out towards the ships in the Channel, the other stares up at the squat reactor buildings.
Cut off from regular public transport, they have arrived as passengers on the only rail link, a historic one-third full size light railway which includes a fleet of steam locomotives built in the 1920s and 30s.
Crammed into miniature ornate carriages, tourists whistle past the power station, with steam from the coal-fired engines drifting between the thick power cables that tether the plant to a network of electricity pylons.
Tim, who has been a regular visitor, says the sight of the two worlds meeting is “almost Pythonesque”. “It’s completely crackers. But this is Dungeness after all.”
For Helen Taylor, a local artist who runs a small gallery from her home, the presence of the plant is part and parcel of daily life.
“It is what it is, and it is fine. I’ve been here for 25 years and my partner has been here for 40 years. It’s a good place to live.
“I don’t think the plant closing will affect us at all. That’s not what people come here for.”
Clattering across the unstable shingle, it’s hard to imagine why Dungeness was chosen as the site for a nuclear power plant. Erosion and drift means the headland is constantly in flux as the shingle is dragged from west to east. Over the centuries, several new lighthouses have had to be erected to keep vessels safe from the ever shifting coastline.
To counter the problem, EDF chose to purchase the 468-acre site around the plant, including the beach and land on which the hamlet sits. Every year, hundreds of trucks are used to migrate tens of thousands of tonnes of shingle back along the coastline to shore up the defences around the plant.
“We’re just battling nature,” Benn jokes. “It wants to move it one way and we’d rather it didn’t.”
But despite its unique challenges, the plant has brought a significant boost to the local area, creating jobs and contributing millions to the local economy.
Even those living in its shadow view its presence as harmless and unobtrusive. “One of the joys of being station director of Dungeness is that I’m a landlord, a station master, and I’ve got 72 residents and two lighthouses to look after,” Benn says.
“There are some very unique aspects to being the station master at Dungeness B. It’s a lovely place to work.”
Kelly, who has served at the local Britannia Inn for 17 years, says many members of her family have worked at the plant over the years, but people are not too concerned about the decision to close it.
“When we get closer to the date it actually closes then that will change, but who knows what’s going to happen, they could even change their mind. The power station is just there in the background; we don’t really notice it most of the time.”
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