Seal Sands has been such a stimulation to me that I continued to visit, whilst I still had family links with my home town of Hartlepool, but living in Oxford required me to find somewhere not dissimilar in essence to Seal Sands, more conveniently situated.
I realized that the attraction of Seal Sands was that it was a place ‘at the edge’, not only geographically, but in so many other ways, and my quest was to find another.
There was a promontory on the south coast, a land of expanding pebbles, a cul-de-sac and Britain’s only official desert – Dungeness. I decided to go there.
Neither of these two places is a place that you would normally pass through – if you were without a clear purpose, you would need a lot of curiosity to take you there. In that sense they are at the edge, and only the few will feel that they can belong to either of these places.
They can be places to escape to for a calmer, quieter life, but they can awaken you from the hypnosis of television, advertising and shopping, for in their way, they can be intense. They are not always comfortable, but if approached at an appropriate pace, they will surprise you, enliven you, and sustain your interest.
Like Seal Sands, Dungeness also exists at a point where a limb of land meets the sea. It is a protruding headland of shingle protecting the Romney Marshes from the sea.
It is certainly at the edge, but that edge is growing, at a fast rate due to deposition, stretching out into the Dover Straits towards France.
On entering this headland, there was a house flying the UKIP party flag, as if to gesture against any further deposition, in a bid to remain separate from Europe.
Both these environments are swept by strong salt winds and tides, and they support and harbor important, healthy bird populations. They display evidence of past, small scale communities eking out a tough living, and they are both ecologically sensitive, and are designated as such. The irony of this is that the scale of the industry has changed, and both now host the foreboding, cumbersome structures of nuclear power stations.
I became interested in what kind of person uses, or inhabits these places? Some may describe them as being ‘at the edge’ of society, definitely not mainstream. There are gleaners, loners, shore fishermen, dog walkers, bird watchers, men without sheds, men with sheds, collectors, writers, artists, the inquisitive, and even the odd internationally renowned film maker, in Derek Jarman.
At Seal Sands I encountered Rick, walking his two greyhounds. In response to my pathetic question, ‘Do you come here often?’ he looked at me and said, ‘Aye, I’m down here every day, but I don’t just come to walk the dogs, I come down here cos it’s out the way of the town, out the way of every fucker.’ He gestured with his arm towards Hartlepool.
‘They don’t even know it’s here, this place, and they don’t know what’s here either– there’s deer, hares, seals, avocets, redshanks; they don’t even know what a fucking redshank is.’
After speaking very tenderly about his dogs, there was now a touch of bitterness in his voice, although a sense of privilege in sharing the sands, was still evident, it seemed that the inner peace observing redshanks had given him, did not remain with him when he encountered the people of the town.
I was reminded of my own dislike of clubs, and their exclusivity, and also my fear of becoming parochial, and it is with this in mind that I can share Rick’s desire to escape to the sands to distance himself from the ‘clubs’, official or unofficial, of the town, and to embrace the wider Universe in the nature of the sands.
I asked myself if visiting the ‘Edge’ is part of being in a club; perhaps it is, but this club does not vet its members, it has no constitution, and you are not judged.
This connection with creatures and universal elements, and the ensuing heightened observations, seemed to lead to an awareness, if not an understanding, of one’s place within the Universe. That’s a good reason for coming here; it offers space and calm, engendering patience, empathy, humility and observation, providing an opportunity for those overwhelmed by the frustrations, the bitterness and the inanities of the people of the town.
On Dungeness I met a man with a rag in his hand. Jerry Oiler, an affable man, was pottering in his leaning shed. I asked him if he lived around here.
‘Yeah’, he proudly said, with pride and a tone of satisfaction.
‘Very long?’, I asked.
‘Oh, since 1746’, he replied, quite seriously. Jerry’s family was one of four to establish roots in 18thcentury Dungeness, all four of them still having descendants present.
‘We was Huguenots; we come over from France. Some went to London, but we come down here – been here ever since.’
Surviving shed photo
The Oilers had fished from their boat berthed on the shore, a shore that was over 100 yards further north in those days, and his predecessors had known good times from fishing.
‘What do think my grandfather was earning in 1953? I’ll tell you, £30 per week, and that was bloody good money then!’ he said.
He told me how the fishermen took their hard-earned cash to the pub, but not wanting their wives to know how much they had earned, they would bury notes in hastily dug holes in the pebbles, in order to hide it from them.
At the end of a night’s hard drinking, they’d leave the pub too drunk to remember where they had hidden it.
‘I tell you, Steve, this place is covered in money, if only you knew where to dig for it.’
I suspected that Dungeness might be a very parochial place, so I was interested to know what Jerry thought of the LGBT community descending on his territory, mainly from London.
I asked him if he had had much to do with Derek Jarman, and what he thought of him. I waited for his reply with some apprehension.
‘Derek?’, he asked. ‘Lovely bloke.’ Jerry sounded very sad, as he shook his head, then he reiterated, ‘You couldn’t wish to meet a nicer bloke. And Keith, he’s a lovely bloke too.’
Wondering who Keith was, I asked him.
‘Keith is “H”; well, that’s what they used to call him, when he was anonymous, “H”, but he can be Keith now – Derek’s partner.’
Keith still resides in the very stylish black and yellow bungalow, with the famous garden. This brings a lot of visitors who I wouldn’t necessarily describe as typical of those who seek out the edge.
Jerry wanted to talk about Derek Jarman, a man he was obviously proud to have known.
‘Do you know?’, he asked me, ‘They made him patron saint of gays and lesbians.”
‘Who did?’ I asked.
‘They did.’ He replied. ‘They come down here from London, about 500 of ‘em, with a throne of oak, solid oak it was, and they hoisted it up on their shoulders, and marched it all the way over them pebbles to the sea, and they anointed him. Hell of a party, it was. Went on for days, dancing and music all over the place.’
After being greeted by the UKIP flag on arrival, I was somehow expecting something more homophobic, more suspicious, more fearful, but Jerry had taken Derek and Keith at face value, and accepted them for the ‘bloody good blokes’ that they were.
I think back on my initial impressions of Dungeness, and what it consisted of – I remember seeing:
Trillions of pebbles
Thousands of uncommon plants
Hundreds of telegraph poles
One road with hundreds of potholes and an ambiguous edge
Scores of single-storey, better-than-makeshift homes
Tens of rickety huts
Untold numbers of rusting machinery
A few unseaworthy boats
One toy steam railway
One lifeboat centre
One Derek Jarman garden
And a nuclear power station
It also has:
A lot of wind, and things that lean
A high pitch of tone (most of the time)
Much Naples yellow and yellow ochre
Many not-quite-vertical lines
A rich texture
A strong identity
So, at these two points, where the land runs out, and the colossal power station dominates, but only when you chose to notice them, I can only guess what it feels like to be a resident. Those who are residents might also say that they too can only guess, because for them, they are only being what they are, and doing what they do, Huguenot or not.
If you come from there, there must be no place like it – a home like no other. A place to belong. A home must include employment, and this is where an edge becomes interesting. Fish have provided most of the answers.
Being at the edge, there is always the possibility that you might fall off, but perhaps living with that vulnerability gives you a different view of life.
I chose to spend many undisturbed hours, looking and sketching on Dungeness.
For an artist, there is an attraction to the unresolved, ambiguous edge.
I am a painter of place, and with these mixed media compositions, I attempt to express something of what it means to me, to know a place ‘at the edge’.