I’ve stepped into one of the ghost stories I love so much. This is the kind of experience I secretly hope for, the world obscured in thick sea mist, all sound muffled, boats and rusted machinery the only landmarks on endless shingle.
Gareth thumbs his dying iPhone as the rain lashes the car windows. My head is buzzing slightly from the smoke in the RSPB carpark. It’s not helping the paranoia and creeping doom.
‘Why are there always some old people just sitting in their cars everywhere we park?’ I ask, disturbed.
‘Like my family did in the 70s. Just going for a drive.’
‘On a Thursday afternoon in the pissing rain in Lydd-on-Sea?’
I slyly try and watch the people staring blankly from the car adjacent to us. They are slowly and carefully eating a bag of chips, wordless, looking out at the mists that swaddle Dungeness. I just don’t understand.
I’m spooked; too much reading of Aickman and rewatchings of The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville. I knew the weather would be bad today, but this is fucking ridiculous.
At every turn we’ve been foiled. Following the true spirit of psychogeographic exploration, combined with laziness and ineptitude, neither of us had bothered to check a weather report, look at the traffic news, or even bring a map. We’ve got Google maps, right? But out on the edge of the country, in the stifling mists, everything is failing. I go down to a single G, then nothing.
The idea was this: a forty minute drive from Hastings, where I’m meeting Gareth, to Dungeness. A good two hours walking around, photography, talking, the usual. Then back to Hastings to see the Minnis Rock and the Black Arches, followed by pints, before heading back to London.
The hateful weather is not a deterrent; after all, wait for a good day to go walking in England and you could be waiting a long time. And I never have the time. A place does not simply exist in sunshine and blue skies and today is as real and valid as any other.
Things go well until we hit Camber Sands, that throwback to a different age of holiday-going. I think of Hi-De-Hi! Both Gareth and I have spent time at Camber Sands in the past, at the now defunct All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.
‘I didn’t leave the chalet for three days,’ says Gareth.
But the road is closed. The only road snaking its way to Dungeness. We have to double back on ourselves, a good half hour added to the journey. The flatness of the Romney Marsh pushing up to the sides of the road, bleak even by its own standards.
We pass Lydd airport. What of use can come in and out of here?
Finally we think we’ve arrived but end up parked outside an RSPB reserve. Normally a good thing. Heading up the dirt track to the building, we see a man sitting silently in a blue car.
‘Doggers, maybe,’ Gareth suggests.
The air is thick with rain and as I step out of the car I see signs in red and white announcing no dog walking allowed. Unless we pass off Hendrix as a guide dog, and Gareth blind. Not a plan. We smoke in the rain.
Inside the RSPB information building, weirdly warm, dry and genteel, an old lady looks at me as if this is all entirely normal.
‘You could walk the dog round the car park,’ she says and I cannot tell if she’s joking.
‘Can I have a map?’
Stepping outside, I see an elderly couple sitting in their car, staring into the middle distance.
We set off, again. First we overshoot the mark from the reserve, end up in another car park in Lydd-on-Sea. This isn’t right. I dash to a newsagents to buy cigarettes and change for the parking meter. The cashier informs me she should ID me. But she’ll let it go this time.
‘I’m 32,’ I say, panicking.
We try another car park, but the entrance is blocked with rusting bollards. Mysteriously, a car is parked within the perimeter. Gareth U-turns.
Third carpark. A sign welcoming us to the Dungeness Nature Reserve. We get out and crunch across the shingle to the water’s edge. Except, as we approach, we realise that this is not water. Only endless shimmering mudflats, disappearing into the mist that blocks all sight, reflecting the sky and masquerading as liquid. A shore that is not a shore. The stuff of nightmare.
I look behind me but the shingle bank is so high I cannot even see back to the carpark. I can see perhaps 50 metres in any one direction – only the stones, Gareth, Hendrix, and the mist. The town is only a memory. Why are we here?
I am dead, I think. This is what the English Asphodel Fields would be like.
We crunch on towards the only landmark, a fisherman’s boat and remains of some machine we don’t know the use of. Reaching it, there is only more of the same ahead, and so defeated we head back to the car. At least we didn’t have to pay for parking.
Back in the car. Decide we must, despite all the signs and portents warning us of imminent danger, reach Dungeness. We have to see it, even in this degraded state.
Finally, after numerous wrong turns, we finally arrive at Dungeness proper. Peering out the rain lashed window, I see Prospect Cottage, and I think of those wonderful films like The Last of England and The Garden.
I wonder what life would be like living here. These days, in summer and sun, I hear it’s invaded by hipsters. They don’t have the gall, or stupidity, to come on days like today.
The nuclear power station is half shrouded in the mist, gothic, its menace heightened by this horror-movie set up. We wonder what would happen if the place flooded – which surely it could? A Kentish Fukushima. Sussex decimated with radiation. Riddley Walker come true. Pleasing thoughts to match today’s madness.
We park up and get out of the car. Immediately the wind whips driving rain into our faces, ice cold and as sharp as flint.
A mournful sound pierces the gloom, like some underwater sonar heard through ears padded with cotton wool. The lighthouse.
‘Like the Ray Bradbury story. Where the sound matches the mating call of some deep sea beast, a beast that comes to find its lost lover.’
I know Gareth is referring to a story, but here it feels not only possible, but inevitable.
I try and take photographs through a misted lens. Hendrix runs around, happy and oblivious. The old lady’s map has turned to mush in my pocket.
We capitulate. Today, we are not wanted. Dungeness has defeated us.
On the way back, we pass a rusted sign advertising a mystical gift shop. It seems apt.
Back in Hastings, the weather is even worse. Minnis Rock can wait. I can’t even see the Black Arches when Gareth points them out to me, just dark smudges on a cliff face.
The only thing to do is head to the pub, plan for another day, and lick our wounds.