01 Nov 2017 Wildlife photography and savage beauty in Dungeness
Few places demand repeat exploration with quite the force of Dungeness. This peculiar wilderness on the coast of Kent combines eerie desolation, good food and spectacular biodiversity. It’s a gift of a place for anyone interested in wildlife photography. And I’m hooked.
Dungeness is a triangular outcrop of shingle by Romney Marsh in Kent. It’s reasonably easy to reach by road – less so if, like me, you’re dependent on public transport. A train via Ashford to beautiful Rye gets you close, before a short bus ride takes you to the quiet little garrison town of Lydd. The nearby artillery range reverberates with the occasional crump or thud, adding to Dungeness’s otherworldly air as you walk past acres of rich farmland to the shingle beach.
I first visited Dungeness on an unseasonably grim day in June 2016, braced against tearing winds and wintry rain. The area is notorious for throwing all kinds of weather at visitors, and this was no exception. As I’ve written before, bad weather is no deterrent for me – I think it can lend something special to a photograph. Still, even I struggled with dismal banks of cloud.
Such conditions can be dispiriting, but they can also be a gift for long-exposure photography. I strapped a Lee Filters Seven5 Big Stopper to my camera (at the time I used a brilliant, weather-sealed Olympus OM-D EM-5, fitted with the beautiful Oly 17mm F1.8 wide lens). I like to keep an eye on which way the clouds are blowing before composing a long-exposure shot. Here the clouds blew out to sea, more-or-less mirroring the horizon. I shot along the shoreline, low down, to emphasise the details of the pebbles; they appeared even better when I worked on the image in black and white. The picture’s serenity is a bit at odds with the terrible weather, but I remain rather fond of it.
So much for bad weather. When I visited again in August this year, the sunlight was intense (as befits an area sometimes (erroneously) described as Britain’s only desert). The summer warmth brought out the area’s incredible diversity of birds and insects; as I approached the RSPB’s huge Dungeness nature reserve I was practically mobbed by gatekeeper butterflies and common blue butterflies (whose name does them little justice – they’re really quite beautiful). Blue damselflies darted around my boots, while starlings swooped and soared above. Sometimes I lack the patience to get close to skittish insects, but this time I persisted and came away with some beautiful photographs of Dungeness’s little residents.
The combination of bleak shingle and vibrant grassland is enough to exhaust any photographer, whatever the weather. For me, both visits ended with a pint in the Britannia Inn, at the foot of Dungeness’s old lighthouse, before I traipsed along the access road for superb fish and chips at The Pilot Inn. Both times, I slept well on the long train ride home.
Fish suppers, eerie wilderness and masses of wildlife, and all within easy reach of London: Dungeness continues to draw me back to explore. Perhaps you should visit too.