The trouble with road-testing a nifty car in crowded England is the limited supply of empty highways on which to open it up. Which is where the windswept eastern tip of England, where Kent meets Sussex and the intrepid and creative have settled amidst the desolate beauty of Dungeness, comes into its own.
The road to Dungeness, site of lighthouses old and new and a partially-decommissioned nuclear power station, offers every kind of driving challenge, from the fast two-lane and dual carriageway stretches of the A21, punctuated by only a single traffic light between the M25 and the B2089 turn-off, from where a few pleasantly twisty miles lead to the mediaeval hilltop town of Rye. One of the historic Cinque Ports, this is a logical place to break the journey before the final scenic, empty stretches perfect for opening the car up before the highway runs out at the coast.
Rediscovering this lonely, romantic tip of Romney Marsh, now a national nature reserve, all shingle and rickety wooden houses punctuating acres of former gravel pits was a perfect outing for a new version of the BMW 1 which looks like a hatchback but drives like a sports car, thanks to the powerful engine and dynamic front-wheel drive. Improved boot space in the new model accommodated a dog bed as well as weekend luggage, while more generous back seats were easy to slip a large pooch into for what, with its wide-open spaces with beaches en route, is one of Britain’s best dog-friendly outings.
The late film-maker Derek Jarman shone an unexpectedly bucolic spotlight on Dungeness more than 20 years ago with the cottage garden he established in the barren landscape. It drew so many crowds, the next homeowner put up a No Trespassing sign. The crowds have now dissipated, but the little garden remains in front of a house easy to identify by its yellow window frames. It’s all the more vital to see this garden soon, as it is under threat since the death of Jarman’s partner; a fund-raising campaign has been launched to save Prospect Cottage and its unique landscaping.
As well as making a respectful pilgrimage to Jarman’s garden – no peeking through the windows, please – and admiring the two lighthouses, one built in 1903 and a smart new black and white sixties replacement, there is the raw beauty of the wild landscape to admire. Fewer than 100 homes are scattered along the ancient shingle, many built from old railway cars repurposed nearly a century ago, and a visit to artist Helen Taylor’s gallery – you can tell it by the sculptural artefacts hanging outside – allows a peek into one, as her compact, eclectically-furnished kitchen is visible behind the art.
Helen is a good source of anecdotes about the area and will point out how to reach lesser-known points of interest like the Listening Ears built on the nearby shoreline between the two World Wars to detect enemy aircraft.
You’ll need a strong will not to get diverted for more than an hour or two in Rye, with its cobbled streets, ancient Mermaid Hotel, Victorian figureheads enjoying a second life heralding town centre shops and the more eclectic bric a brac and vintage stores down at the bottom of the hill. It’s worth making a quick detour to equally ancient Winchelsea, also named one of the Cinque Ports in the Middle Ages, to check out one of England’s loveliest churches, the 13th century St Thomas the Martyr, with wonderful stained glass and impressive ruins.
Returning to the route, it’s impossible to resist a stop in Camber Sands, at the start of the best part of the drive – the final approach to Dungeness. The dog-friendly Gallivant Hotel has brought a New England seaside vibe to this low-key coastal hamlet which has a fabulous stretch of broad sandy beach ideal for exercising dogs. Lunch or dinner in the Gallivant’s bright conservatory dining room is worth an expedition in its own right, and afternoon tea with home-made cake in the cosy lounge area is a good welcome home for overnighters after the trek into a coastal wilderness whose huge open skies linger as a sight memory for years after making the trip.
Tell me more about driving to Dungeness
The Dungeness Nature Reserve has lots of information about visiting the area.
Information here about the new BMW 1 series
Where can I stay near Dungeness?
The Gallivant, Camber Sands