Morning. I awake to the sounds of gulls shrieking. The sky is misty blue, the air fresh and fragrant. Our apartment backs onto the dunes at Camber Sands, so we can’t see the beach but we are near enough to smell it, hear it. I glance at the time, 7.49. Felix is still asleep; a minor miracle. It has been an age since I have woken before him and it feels odd, like putting a shoe on the wrong foot. I check on him, his cheek is pressed tightly into the bed, his breathing deep and even. I pad down the stairs and make myself a cup of tea, write my thoughts in the notepad while the sun rises and floods the balcony with warmth and light. It is a beautiful place; dune grass and cactus grow in the communal gardens of the eco apartment complex, giving the place an exotic, almost Greek feel. Swallows dart and swoop between the buildings, their streamlined black bodies like arrows. I am full of joy.
8.17. Felix sleeps on. I leave a note and do the thing that I always say I will do and never do; I go for a run on the beach. The sun is warm and kindly on my skin as I scramble up and over the dune. Although it is mid September the weather is summery, the sand cool and soft under my bare feet. I race down the side of the dune towards the beckoning sea; it glints and sparkles like a tray of sapphires. The beach has been combed and is pristine, the track marks giving it the appearance of a vast athletic ground. I start to run, my feetdigging into the powdery sand and slowing me down. After just a few paces my calves are burning but I carry on, fixing my eyes on the curve of the bay in the distance. The dunes are to one side, green and ancient, the sea to the other. There is no one on the beach, I am alone. My heart beats a wild tempo but I carry on, drawing the morning air into my lungs to counteract the burning there, until eventually I collapse onto my knees, my breath ragged and laboured. The sea winks at me. Eventually I rise and walk into its cool embrace, feeling the soft briny water wash away the sweat and exertion. The tide is on its way in but still I have to walk some distance before the water comes near my hips. I dive into the waves and feel the shock of cold as my head goes under, but I experience it as pleasure not pain. Mind over matter. I float on my back, bobbing with the waves like a bottle.
‘If you want to feel depressed, go to Dunguness’.
We drive from Camber Sands in bright sunlight. Another blue sky day, 20 degrees or so, the sun warm and yet mild above. As we approach Dunguness a strange tinge appears in the sky like a shadow. I have read about Dunguness, seen it on Coast. I know it is ‘Britains only desert’. We drive past wooden houses and shacks, randomly dotted on the stony expanse. The dirty fog thickens as we drive into the centre of the desert; it has the strangest colour, yellow-grey like the depiction of a fart in a Beano comic. There was fog this morning on the beach at Camber but it was beautiful, a dove-grey mist that covered the beach like lace. The sickly fog that rolls over Dunguness only heightens the dismal feel of the place. We park next to a sad looking pub called the Britannia, ‘The only pub in Dunguness’ it declares boldly. It feels like a threat. The power station looms ominously, a blot on the already forbidding landscape. We wander down a wooden walkway towards the beach, Felix strapped into the backpack, the modern lighthouse uttering regular calls declaring the fog to approaching boats. The beach is a desolate expanse of brown pebbles, the lapping sea muddied by the underlying sand. With the thickening ochre mist I feel like I entered the sepia world of an old photograph. It is one of the most depressing places I have ever been, bringing to mind the T.S Eliot’s Wasteland. ‘A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water’.
The old lighthouse, the only thing of note to visit in this barren wasteland, is closed. Weekends only it declares. We are left to wander like lost souls in purgatory, glancing nervously at the power station in the background. It was not the drabness of the landscape that bothered me; as a matter of fact I am quite partial to an austere landscape every now and then, it is cleansing for the soul. But Dunguness held an unspoken menace that crept into my very bones and made me feel like screaming ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’. The vast openness of it, with its scattered homes like the remnants of an Armageddon was interesting, painterly even. I can see how artists are drawn to the place. But always the spectre of the power station caught the eye, looming darkly on the spirit, suffocating any joy to be found there. Apparently the inhabitants of Dunguness receive free energy, a kind of pay off for having to live under its shadow. It seemed to me a cheap price for the stifling of your soul.
The oddest thing happened as we drove out and away. As soon as we were some way down the road the sickly mist started to lift, thinning perceptibly as we reached the outer edges of the desert. As we drove towards Camber we left the stifling cloud behind entirely and re-entered a beautiful September day, a world of sunlight and blue sky. I glanced back at Dunguness, wondering about those lost souls stuck in their eternal gloom. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that the weather changed just as we arrived and left, but it felt to me that the very landscape of Dunguness makes its own weather, a kind of perma-gloom that envelops this sad and dispiriting place like a filthy coat, shielding it forever from the welcome, warming rays of the sun. Perhaps this is what some people seek, a smog to dull the beauty of life, a dark nuclear shadow to blight their every day, a kind of penance for happiness. A pub so sad it would make me teetotal. To live in a barren pebbly wilderness that stretches flat and drab as far as the eye can see, the only features man-made and ominous. Only the lighthouse relieves the eye of Dunguness’s ugliness, and it is simply not enough. It is worth visiting if only to be glad to be gone.