Pilgrimage

We all have our heroes: those whose life story has touched ours. Those whose characters and actions truly resonate with our own, just as the guitar strings hum when you sing across the other side of the room.

Brunel the resilient problem solver, the charismatic ideas man, is one of mine: as is Churchill, dogged leader and shoulderer of impossible burdens.

And I wonder whether, if I asked you to rummage through your bag of humans whose outlook you coveted, there might be a few characters there whose presence puzzles you?

Or maybe it’s just me. Today I made a pilgrimage to see someone’s house.

Why he is on my Wall Of Fame I’m not certain. Perhaps simply because his choice of home, and what he chose to do with it, has always touched me deeply.

From my window I can see, across the grey expanse of channel and the myriad white horses, a large nuclear power plant.

There are people who choose to live in its shadow, on the reclaimed shingle of Dungeness.

A wild, contradictory place it is, of one-story wooden shacks squatting like disgruntled union men on the inhospitable cobbles. There seems to be precious little earth there.

But it has the pull of the hermit. If you love to be solitary, choose this place. If Different is your raison d’être, Dungeness could be your ideal home.
Because for all its puzzling barren contrariness, it is undeniably beautiful.

And this is the backdrop for my hero’s tale.

Derek Jarman was as different from me as anyone could be.

Born in Middlesex in 1942, he was known for two things primarily: his stunning art films, visual feasts which shocked many: and his tireless campigning for gay rights, after he had been diagnosed with HIV at the end of the 1980s. He died in 1994 aged 52.

I didn’t know about any of this. I got to know of him because of his garden. Which is at the little cottage which used to belong to him,at Dungeness.

Towards the end of his life, his garden was one of his greatest loves.

So, today I said to everyone: let’s go and catch the little light railway to Dungeness.

The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is another quirky relic of the first half of the twentieth century.

Two racing drivers-one of whom had driven the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang- loved model railways.

Together they plotted to make one of their own, on rails just 15 inches apart, sited in the Lake District.

But one died, racing in the Italian Grand Prix. And they had already bought two locomotives. The Lakes deal fell through, and a home must be found for the two engines.

The remaining driver chose Romney Marsh, finally. And ever since, these munchkin locomotives and their diminutive carriages have been trundling across the shingle, carrying tourists, schoolchildren, anyone who would pay.

Today, that was us. Phil and I eyed the tiny carriages with suspicion. Grown people? In there? With long legs?

Minutes later, kneecaps level with ears, we were on our way.

A charming, shabby-chic journey ensued. Sometimes it was plain shabby. But eternally full of surprises.

“What was your favourite bit? ” I asked the kids in plummy Enid Blyton fashion. It was Felix who obliged. He thought for a moment.

“Did you see the dog sleeping in the sun?” he enquired, grinning broadly. ” Did you see the park bench in the middle of nowhere?”

He had the measure of the place. It’s not average. We noted most gardens had windsocks as standard.

We arrived, and Phil and the kids trotted off to see the bold black lighthouse. But I had other business.

Yes, the lady in the cafe told us. Derek Jarman’s house is just down that road, black and yellow, can’t miss it, ten minute walk.

Ten minute walk, My Aunt Fanny’s big wobbly bottom. It was a stiff 15, and I was in idiotic flip floppy shoes. Ten minutes into the mission I realized it was run barefoot, or miss the train back.

I flew past shed-cottages buried moodily in the shingle. Past piles of maritime junk, artfully displayed: nuclear plant no-entry signs: an Eco- cottage painted matt black with a telescope in the conservatory. Each metre of road had a new charm and I ached to stop and gawp. Well actually, I just ached.

Drivers clearly felt this apparition hurtling barefoot across the Dali-esque landscape was worth a second look. Someone clicked their camera.

I glimpsed the house and closed the gap. I was at my hero’s house. And stood, spellbound.

The surrounds were stark and stunning, planted with all the order of an Elizabethan knot garden. It was breathtaking that someone had the vision to draw this out of the salty shingle.

He is, I thought, my hero.

And then British reserve broke the spell. Someone lives here, I thought, can’t stand here snapping and invading privacy like this.

I would have loved to stand and commune with the garden: but instead I turned and ran, back to the children, back to the little station.

I only took one picture, but every detail is there, clear as day, in my minds eye.

We all have our heroes, and they all had to live somewhere. Maybe it’s time to look them up.

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8 thoughts on “Pilgrimage

  1. I think I remember going there as a child Kate, in the days when we used to stay at rainham. I just remember the starkness, everything so far flung and barren.

  2. OK kate, think of sausage pie on Dungeness beach when your Auntie Paddy lived in Lydd. We went there often when you were young. I, too used to pine for a cottage there, but we had a crust to earn, and you’re right, you need at least a couple of million to settle down there.

    But doesn’t it make the excitement rise!

    See you tomorrow
    Love dad

    1. Ah, so there’s a bit of Dungeness shingle way back in my timeline:-D. Wonderful place. It did occur to me that some of those shacks were artfully dishevelled, with a lot of expensive equipment inside. Stockbrokers playing tramp….

      Yes, see you both tomorrow. Looking forward to it.

  3. At least the weather cleared up 🙂

    My favourite TV programme, I watch it faithfully every Friday – don’t anyone dare ask me to go anywhere then – is Escape to the Country. It delights me, while making me envious, to view all those beautiful cottages with vies to die for. When I make my million, I shall have one built right here in Oz. Then when I asked why? I will say, ‘Because I can.’ 😉

    1. And book your slot on Escape To The Country!! It’s one of our favourites too…second only to Homes Under The Hammer, about getting properties in auctions. One of the best games on holiday is choosing your next, if fictional, house. Hope your house in Oz gets built…..meanwhile it’s lovely to dream…..

  4. Wonderful barefoot romp down the road . . .

    Maybe you can housesit in Dungeness for a time, to see whether desolate isolation wins out over forested glades?

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