Dungeness is one of the strangest places on the coast of Britain. With its unexpected blend of shingle beaches, stark beauty, and unique ecosystems, this 23km2 nature reserve is a unique place to visit on the Kent coast.
Identified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Protection Area (SPA), Dungeness offers a habitat with less common plants, insects and birds that have adapted to this challenging environment.
Dungeness, with its tranquil and reflective ambience, is a sanctuary for slow travel. In this fast-paced world, it beckons you to step back, immerse yourself in the present, and appreciate the simple beauty of the surroundings.
Strolling along the beach, watching birds in their natural habitat, and taking in the unspoiled landscape dotted with fisherman’s huts, tarred wood beach shacks and a huge nuclear power station all add to the experience. Dungeness invites you to engage with nature and history at your own pace and really think about what ‘wild’ really means.
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The unique landscape of Dungeness
The shingle beach at Dungeness is often referred to as a “desert,” and is a geographical rarity—the only true desert in the UK. The barren expanse of the beach is reminiscent of an arid landscape and the flint pebbles form Europe’s largest sheet of shingle.
The shingle beach has evolved over thousands of years due to the intricate interplay of currents and tides along the coast. This unique geography creates an environment where specially adapted plants, such as the rare yellow horned poppy (Glaucium flavum), flourish in this harsh landscape.
The wildlife at Dungeness
Dungeness is a crucial stopover for migratory birds and for many is first landfall after covering large distances across the Atlantic and Europe.
In spring and autumn, you might spot the sandwich tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) and the large marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus), both protected under the SPA designation. In the winter months, it may be possible to see Arctic skua (Stercorarius parasiticus) circling above the beach.
Pintail (Anas acuta), along with Wigeon (Mareca penelope), and Teal (Anas crecca), can be seen in large numbers around the lakes beyond the power station.
Dungeness is also home to a variety of insects, including the rare Sussex Emerald Moth (Thalera fimbrialis) which is only found at Dungeness in Britain. Its caterpillars can be found feeding on the Wild Carrot that grows on the headland.
Amidst the shingle beach, a number of plant species thrive in the challenging coastal environment. Sea Kale (Crambe maritima), Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare), Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), and the vivid Yellow Horned Poppy (Glaucium flavum) can all be found growing between the pebbles in the summer months.
Additionally, the wooden huts along the shore offer a protective habitat for Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) covered in lichen, and Broom (Cytisus scoparius). Unlike blackthorn and hawthorn in other areas, these grow close to the ground as bushes rather than the tall hedges usually seen.
The best things to do in Dungeness
Dungeness is a unique place to visit and while it can be desolate and wild in the winter months, during the summer it is a special place to explore which couldn’t be more remote than the nearby towns of Rye and Ashford.
Dungeness Beach is definitely a place for exploring and walking. The shingle is not comfortable for sitting on and the steep shingle banks and strong currents and tides make it unsafe for swimming.
The beach at Dungeness Point has been formed over hundreds of years with shingles being thrown up into high ridges.
The plants grow through the shingle in bands that have formed and expanded over the years.
To help protect the shingle and the vegetation there are boardwalks that take you out over the shingle towards the beach. Stick to these as you wander along the shore.
Look out for the old fishing boats, tram tracks to carry gear across the shingle to the boats and rusting winches at the top of the shingle ridges as well as the working fishing boats that come and go with the tides. These make for great photography subjects but remember they are places of work and not museum pieces.
Old Dungeness Lighthouse
The Dungeness Lighthouse, erected in 1904, stands as a historic landmark that has been replaced by a newer fully automated lighthouse a short distance away.
A lighthouse has stood on the point since the first lighthouse was established in 1615. As more shingle was thrown up onto the beach new lighthouses were built in 1635 and 1795.
The current ‘old’ lighthouse was active from 1904 to 1960 and is 43.5 metres high with 169 steps to the lantern room.
It is possible to climb to the top and look out towards Romney Marsh and out across the English Channel on a clear day.
Just a short walk along the beach is the current modern lighthouse. Not so much a lighthouse, but more a light tower.
OLD DUNGENESS LIGHTHOUSE
Dungeness, Romney Marsh, Kent, TN29 9NB
Hours – 10 am to 4 pm (summer months) | Website – dungenesslighthouse.com
Parking is available at the small Dungeness train station. Check before visiting as the winter opening hours vary and there may be private functions
Since 1617, the Dungeness Estate has witnessed the development of wooden fishermen’s cabins built along the shingle beach. The most well-known is Prospect Cottage owned by Derek Jarman.
These early constructions eventually expanded to include coastguards’ cottages and repurposed 19th-century railway carriages, serving as makeshift holiday homes. Over time, newer additions like timber chalets and clapboard cottages joined the landscape, exhibiting diverse designs and varying levels of quality.
Many of the cottages have been restored and renovated in recent years and are now stunning architectural buildings based around a traditional heart.
It’s important to note that the Dungeness Estate is private land. While its architecture and history are intriguing, respect for the privacy of its residents is paramount and you should stick to the public roads.
Dungeness is also home to Prospect Cottage and Garden where the remarkable fusion of art, nature, and personal expression of Derek Jarman can be seen.
Created by the visionary filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman, this garden emerged from the shingle landscape in the 1980s.
Inspired by the harsh environment and his own experiences, Jarman transformed the space into a place of reflection, colour, and contemplation.
The garden boasts a variety of hardy plants, including sea kale and poppies, thriving amidst the challenging conditions. This living artwork is a tribute to Jarman’s unique creative spirit and enduring legacy.
The small black wooden cottage behind the garden is beautiful with its yellow paintwork and carved words along one of the outside walls. It is possible to book tours of the cottage and see the inside of this special retreat.
1 Dungeness Rd, Romney Marsh TN29 9NE
Hours – Outside at any time
Website – https://www.creativefolkestone.org.uk/prospect-cottage/
The cottage can be seen from the road along the coast. Guided tours inside the cottage can be booked on the website.
Dungeness Snack Shack
The Dungeness Snack Shack is situated on the beach a short distance from Prospect Cottage. Look out for the black tarred shed with scallop shells that can be seen from the road.
Offering beach food to take away, the family-run establishment prides itself on using their own freshly caught fish and seafood, sourced sustainably.
The family operate two small inshore fishing boats, the Annalousion and The Doreen T, directly from the Dungeness beach and their menu varies based on the day’s catch.
While consistent favourites like fish baps and fish cakes remain, the menu adapts with the seasons, featuring items like lobster and crab rolls. With a focus on sustainability and traceability, their approach centres on delivering fresh, unpretentious food. The emphasis lies in serving locally sourced seafood and reflecting their commitment to responsible practices.
DUNGENESS SNACK SHACK
Dungeness Fish Hut, Dungeness Rd, Dungeness, TN29 9NE
Hours – 11 am to 3.30 pm (Tue – Sun)
Website – https://www.dungenesssnackshack.net/
Dungeness Power Station
Two power stations dominate the skyline at Dungeness. The Dungeness Power Station A – the nearest to the lighthouses is a Magnox reactor that was commissioned in the 1960s, and since 2007 has been undergoing decommissioning.
Station ‘B’ was built during the 1980s and is an advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (AGR) that still generates electricity.
The visitor centre within the power station complex is no longer open, but you can walk along the perimeter fence of the site and see the scale of the buildings.
Unique places to visit near Dungeness
Rye Harbour and Castle Water
A short drive from Dungeness, Rye Harbour is perfect for birdwatching. Its diverse habitats, including salt marshes and lagoons, attract a wide variety of bird species. A nature trail takes you towards the sea through this RAMSAR wetland of international importance and a Special Protection Area for birds.
Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) and redshanks (Tringa totanus) breed in the salt marshes and pink sea heath (Frankenia laevis)and marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) can be seen bright pink across the marshes.
Along the shingle ridges of the beach ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula) and little terns (Sternula albifrons) breed amongst the ground hugging sea pea (Lathyrus japonicus) and yellow horned poppy.
The Denge Sound Mirrors, also known as the “listening ears,” are fascinating relics of early sound detection technology. Situated at Lade Pitts Nature Reserve, these massive concrete structures were constructed during the 1920s and 1930s to detect approaching enemy aircraft by reflecting and amplifying sound waves.
These innovative pre-radar devices offer a unique glimpse into the history of coastal defence and the evolving techniques used during the interwar period. They can only be visited on open days when the swing bridge linking them to the footpath is opened, however, they can be seen from the nature reserve.
For a quintessential English beach experience, Camber Sands offers golden sands that stretch into the distance. Parking backs onto the beach with steps taking you down from the seafront to the sands. Keep an eye out for kite surfers who can be seen on the east end of the beach on windy days.
If you are feeling adventurous why not hire a bike and cycle the coast from Camber out towards Dungeness and Romney Marsh on well-marked cycle paths? These are electric bikes so no effort needed!
The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway
The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is a narrow-gauge steam railway that has been operational since the 1920s. It winds its way through picturesque countryside, providing a nostalgic experience reminiscent of a bygone era.
The narrow gauge railway terminates at Dungeness Station after following the coast from Dymchurch through the small villages and open countryside. It is a great alternative way to arrive in Dungeness.
ROMNEY, HYTHE AND DYMCHURCH RAILWAY
New Romney Station, New Romney, Kent TN28 8PL
Hours – 10 am to 5 pm | Website – https://www.rhdr.org.uk/
Where to stay in Dungeness
Dungeness provides a range of unique accommodation options that allow you to fully immerse yourself in the coastal beauty. From charming cottages boasting sea views to cosy bed and breakfasts nestled in the heart of the landscape, you’ll find a haven of comfort and tranquillity.
How to get to Dungeness
If you’re travelling by train, the closest station is Rye, offering connections to London and other major cities or the small train on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway will take you all the way to Dungeness.
By road, Dungeness can be reached via the A259 from Lydd. The road along the shore to the lighthouse is on the right just before the level crossing on the road towards Lydd-on-Sea.
Along this final road, there are a number of clear parking areas. I would suggest driving all the way to the main parking at the Lighthouse and railway station and then driving back along the coast stopping if you want to explore.