My life as a performer took me to many places on our beleaguered and war torn Earth. When friends ask, ‘Where is the most magical or intriguing place you found yourself in your travels ?’ Or words to that effect. ‘Impossible to choose.’ Was my oftentimes reply. I lived for a while in California in a small Town called Crockett, or Sugar Town as it was known, because of the Tate & Lyle Sugar factory. Far removed from the more expensive San Fransisco, Berkley areas, it was a hilly – billy, wild, west sort of a place. I lived in a wooden shack built on stilts, planted into the Sacramento river…from the road above, down a hill and over the railway tracks. Mind the trains! A walk along the tracks beside the River to the curious tiny town of Port Costa, or a beer in the U & I Bar up the hill, where the guys from the factory played pool.
More words below the pics of Crocket.
Above. Crocket California. Bay Area. Ron Cornelius, Musician & owner of the shack. Sam, my son, with a friend and Ron’s dog. Jon Sagan and Karen with Sam aged 6 climbing up the hill.
In 1972, I travelled down from London to stay with friends from Port Stewart in Northern Ireland. Henry McCullough, a musician, his wife Sheila, and their son Jesse. They had arrived in the city and stayed for a while, but they were not urban people and missed the balmy sea air and country smells. They rented a house in Dymmchurch, a small village sandwiched between the Kent coast and the edges of Romney Marsh. During the long, hot summer of 1976, my son and I spent a lot of time down in Dymmchurch and we got to know the area a little more.
Over the years, both my children have taken the trip to Dungeness, the best way; on the Dymmchurch, Romney Marsh Miniature Railway from the Cinque Port town of Hythe to Dungeness via Dymmchurch, St. Marys Bay, New Romney and Romney Sands to Dungeness. Peering into the back gardens of houses as we clickety, click along the rails. A garden on the left was laid out with a miniature railway. Steam Locomotives, whoo, whoo, across the edges of the Marsh, passing through an eerily quiet landscape criss crossed with waterways. Fields with the famous Romney Marsh sheep, grazing contentedly. The Marsh became covered by a dense network of drainage ditches, once supporting large farming communities. Some areas lay below sea level, the land given back, eons ago from the sea; infamous smuggler’s territory between the 1600s and 1800s.
The Railway opened in 1927 with a fleet of 1/3 full size steam locomotives. Green Goddess, Northern Chief, Southern Maid,Typhoon and Doctor Syn, inspired by the Novels by Russell Thorndike about The Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, smuggler hero. A Tale of Romney Marsh was published in 1915. These magnificent Locomotives were being built from 1925 and onwards. The RH&DR began running to Dungeness is 1928 when Southern Railway was also providing the rural areas with connections to Towns and London to the north in the area. My earliest memory as a child, is in a building overlooking a south East London Station, when Trains were steam and travel was a magical possibility. Where the wider world lay waiting for me.
On arrival, at the Station in Dungeness, in those early 1970s days, you would see a water tower for the steam locomotives, an inviting gift shop and a café. Walking out of the station, the wide openness, and sometimes windswept wildness of the Bay, held an open, bleak beauty, the second-largest shingle beach in the world. Two lighthouses and many curious and idiosyncratic homes, dominated by a looming nuclear power station, an ominous building, if anything, adding to this region’s wonderful, un-earthly strangeness. The vast expanse of shingle on the edge of Romney Marsh, technically classified as a desert. Surreal. I know nowhere on earth with the atmosphere and aura of Dungeness and The Marsh.
Walking out of the Station along the way, over the years, some of those old railway carriages have been converted into homes, at first for local Fishing families, then later in time, artists’ studios and homes, together with black tarred wooden huts and shacks. Latterly, Dungeness has become a place for wealthy lovers of strange places. Artist Joe Sweeney built a phone box on the English coast inviting people to share their feelings about Brexit. Nearby, sits Black Rubber Beach House by Simon Conder. It is not the ramshackle place it was when I first trod that shingle, but like most wonderful places, you can’t take history out of Dungeness. It is still suffused within the lives and nature’s essential core, on this very unique peninsula. Sitting about three miles out into the English Channel, it is the southern tip of Romney Marsh.
Sea Birds are still wheeling and calling, the smell of sea and gorse flowing into nostrils. Home to a wealth of wildlife, including 600 species of plants and rare insects. As a lifelong hoarder and collector, I gloried in the piles of random finds beside some of the eccentric homes. Many piles of rubber jelly beach shoes, all hues from pink to yellow. Buckets, cups, twine and rope, buttons and shells. A pair of pink sunglasses, a selection of random cutlery, a blue straw hat, a single canvas shoe, old saucepans, a red peaked cap, the jet some and flotsam of lives and losses. Fodder for the paintings, photographs and artworks. A visit to the Dungeness Gallery is a must see.
Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage with his inspirational driftwood garden merging with the landscape. A seamless connection to the land. Where does the garden end and Dungeness begin? Down to the water’s edge on weathered wooden walkways across the shingle, boats beached wonderfully, haphazardly, almost as if they had been left there in a hurry. Rusting old machinery growing out of the shingle at strange angles, a surreal art gallery. Vast seas and skies, horizon; balm, for a City woman’s eyes. Sit and stare and take it all in. Plenty to see and just be. A trio of men fishing, Cod in the winter, passing shipping out in The Channel bound for faraway lands. France can be seen with clarity on a bright day.
Invertebrates, such as moths, bees, beetles, and spiders, many of these are very rare and found nowhere else in Britain. A bouquet of flora and tundra into the nose and down into the lungs. Nature’s perfect medicine. If I could, I would bottle it to keep for moments of feeling an impending cold or flu or to cure a melancholy mood. Reaching the sea, shingle crunching underfoot, the sea rolling in and out with my breath, smells of salt, wood and tar. The whole makes me feel alive. In the early 1970s, that first trip included a take-home for supper, from the old Smokery. Kippers. I still have the memory of those Dungeness-smoked yellow Kippers in my DNA. My tip is to pack a panic with a bottle, or two of local wine or beer. Or amble along to The Pilot Inn or The Britannia Public House for a glass of wine, a pint of beer, probably the best fish and chips I’ve had. Snack Shack for the freshest fish sandwich you will ever taste.
In the 1980s I recorded a musical poem I had written, and with an Arts Council grant, together with some of my singing pals, we recorded on Romney Marsh, in one of the many beautiful Churches. Ivy Church.
Voices are Ian Shaw, Sami -Salahi, Mary Fagan, Charlie Ezilea, Hannah Wilson, Brian Abrahams, Laka Daisical, Simon Sumner, Sianed Jones, Jan Ponsford & Carol Grimes. Produced by Maciek Hrybowicz.
Below Dungeness and Romney Marsh. Some pics with Kasia & Harvey. A visit to Dungeness after the lock downs. Covid times!
Above, the beautiful home of Artist and film maker, Derek Jarman RIP
Also, in the Covid years, a friend called Fiona, A Marsh woman born and bred, took me to her home turf. What a glorious day.
Below. An evening of Music in another Church on the Marsh, with Diana.
Below. 1970s on Dymmchurch beach. With Dee, Henry, Sheila and the boys, Tristan Sam and Jesse. Dee doing the traditional burying in sand! Sam!
Below. Ian and Kasia on Romney Marsh.1992.