England’s Desert

On June 19, 2009 · 2 Comments

England has a desert?

When I think desert, I normally envision cacti, sand, camels and that sort of thing, but that’s an inaccurate and stereotypical point of view. A desert doesn’t require scorching heat. Antarctica is a desert.

It is claimed by numerous sources that even England has a desert. It is located at Dungeness, a headland on the east coast of Kent. But is it really a desert?

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In this instance I think the term desert has been applied to Dungeness because of the "deserted" nature of the parcel rather than anything to do with rainfall. Clearly there is an abundance of greenery surrounding the headland on its periphery and beyond. Just zoom out on the map and notice all the farms. I’ve not been able to find anything that indicates an extremely local lack of precipitation although I suppose that’s possible.

It’s an unusual formation. Sediments move along beaches through wave action. Sometimes local conditions cause sediments from different points to move towards each other to build up a headland. This is an extremely simplified description of a cuspate foreland, the condition found at Dungeness. Here the sediment is shingle, or small pebbles smoothed by the waves. Think miniature cobblestones and you’re on the right track. England’s desert is one of the largest and most ecologically significant shingle beaches anywhere on the planet. Its curious geography provides habitats for extremely rare insects, birds and plants, including several not seen elsewhere in Britain.

England’s desert also has historical significance.

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This is an acoustic mirror at Denge, a former Royal Air Force site at the northern edge of the Dungeness shingle. These experimental "listening ears" served in the 1920’s-1930’s. They were designed to provide advance warning of airborne attacks approaching Britain, able to detect sounds up to thirty kilometres away under optimal conditions and able to determine the direction of attack. Their usefulness began to decrease as newer airplanes began to fly faster and faster. Thirty kilometres didn’t provide much of a buffer. Thereafter, radar technology made the acoustic mirrors wholly obsolete.

There are also lighthouses, a nuclear power station, and a whole cast of eclectic residents (including at least one person of renown at the time of his passing). It hardly sounds like a desert either in the classic sense or within the expanded definition, perhaps a little bleak of landscape but fascinating in so many other respects.

Here are some photos I’ve scrounged up from the Intertubes:

Has anyone visited this place? Any first-hand accounts from the readership?

On June 19, 2009 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “England’s Desert”

  1. Hi,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks and I’m finding it very entertaining and informative. Thanks.

    I stumbled upon Dungeness by accident during an Easter holiday on the south coast of England a few years ago. It is indeed a strange place. One thing you didn’t mention is the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, which seems to have been built solely for the purpose of delivering unsuspecting tourists by steam train from the lush Kent countryside into the middle of this “desert”. I have some photos on flickr.


    • Thanks, David. I enjoyed your photos of Dungeness, and one can get a great sense of the shingle beach in several of your shots. The train is also rather fascinating as you noted. I love odd trivia, and now I have this (possibly worthless to anyone but myself) nugget from the Wikipedia page:

      Smallest public railway in the world. From 1926 to 1978, the RH&DR held the title of the ‘Smallest public railway in the world’ (in terms of track gauge). The title was lost to the 12¼-inch (311mm) gauge Réseau Guerlédan in France in 1978 and regained from 1979, when the Réseau Guerlédan closed, until 1982, when the 10¼ inch (260mm) gauge Wells and Walsingham Light Railway opened.

      I also liked your Favourites tab on flicker, too. I hope other readers will follow your link and take a look.

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