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The Nessers: exploring a Kentish edgeland

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Abandoned boats are a reminder of the once much larger fishing industry on Dungeness Foreland. A handful of families are still involved in fishing (photo © hidden europe).


Dungeness Foreland offers an improbable touch of wilderness in south-east England. The great shingle spreads at Dungeness on the coast of Kent create a severe and uncompromising landscape. The Nessers are the locals who call this area home. Join us on a journey through this extraordinary outpost of England.

On a dark night, one might easily get lost on the shingle ridges. On a bright day, even the most sure-footed wanderer will stumble on the shingle spreads of Dungeness Foreland. “Look at this,” says the fisherman, as he points at the beach ridges which stretch far away into the distance. “What you are seeing there is the most orderly place in the south of England.”

We gaze across a wasteland with abandoned huts, old shipping containers and rusting beached boats that have surely never been in the sea for many years. “No, no,” says the old man, passing us each a smoked sprat. Jack evidently never leaves home without a few sprats. “No,” he says. “You’re meant to look at the shingle, the way those ridges mount like waves and then curve away into the distance. Ordered. Each stone in its place.”

Jack is a true Nesser who evidently loves the bleak landscape of Dungeness on England’s south coast. His mind works at different levels. At one moment, pointing out to sea, he remarks on a wisp of cirrus in the southern sky, apparently not noticing the huge nuclear power station which obliterates much of the view. Then just seconds later, he is peering at the ground on one of the ridges close to the sea, pointing out bold little plants which are colonising the barren shingle. “Atriplex hastata,” he says. “We need plants like that, the ones which are tough enough to survive in this terrain.” Jack knows the plants as well as he knows the waters around Dungeness Foreland.

“Over there,” he says, pointing vaguely towards the power station, “they’ve been growing wild carrot on the shingle. There’s a rare emerald moth in these parts,” adds Jack. “And it just loves wild carrot. Imagine that.”

The Sussex Emerald is just one of the many surprises of Dungeness, a vast cuspate foreland which juts into the English Channel. The rare moth takes its name from the county of Sussex which lies just west of Dungeness. The foreland is almost entirely in Kent. It is Europe’s finest example of a gravel strand plain.

“Well, I don’t know anything about that,” says Jack when we boldly mention the phrase ‘strand plain’.

“But I will tell you one thing,” says Jack. “You could take me out blindfolded on a dark night, and plonk me down on the ridges. Take off the blindfold, and I’d be able to tell you exactly where we are. You just need to look at the lie of the shingle, the size of the stones, the size of the lichens and other plants, and listen to the sounds from the sea.” No mention, we note, of the dull hum from the nuclear power station.

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