Dungeness, Dr Syn and Derek Jarman’s Garden

Last week, I holidayed in good old Blighty. Scuppered by a four-hour delay on a Belgian motorway, which meant we caught the ferry at 6 pm instead of 12 noon, the hub and I were too knackered to drive all the way from Dover to south Wales. Instead, we found a lovely family run hotel, Broadacre in New Romney on the south coast. Unaided by the sat-nav or internet we just followed our instincts! We booked into the master bedroom complete with four-poster bed and room to swing a pony…

In the entrance hall of the atmospheric hotel, hung paintings of local legend, Dr Syn. His spooky Phantom-of-the-Opera appearance and intriguing life as a parson-cum-smuggler prompted me to download the novel, Doctor Syn on the High Seas, onto my Kindle. It’s proving a swashbuckling romp with dastardly landowners, rascally pirates and a hot Spanish senorita thrown in for good measure. Having become weary in the past few months of writers being far too clever with multiple story lines, jumps in time and incomprehensible plots, it’s refreshing to read a linear story of revenge. After marrying the woman of his dreams, Doctor Syn is cuckolded and his Spanish wife hightails it off with a younger, better looking man. What she saw in Dr Syn in the first place is beyond me, but heigh-ho, you pays your money and you takes your chance.

After a restful night in the four-poster, I awoke refreshed, all memories of sleepy Belgian lorry drivers banished from my memory, and set out to explore the single-street metropolis of New Romney. My ever garrulous hubby got chatting to a local, who recommended we visit Dungeness. Famed for its lighthouse, shingled beach, artists’ community, Derek Jarman’s garden and the best fish & chips in England! (We’ll forget about the nuclear-power station for now.)

Dungeness is a haunting place, quite unlike any coast I’ve ever visited in England. The light is harsh and strong, the sound of the waves over the shingle relentless, and its unusual ecosystem of alien-looking plants give the sensation of having stumbled into an otherworldly place. First stop was Derek Jarman’s, Prospect Cottage. The film director bought the cottage and created its surrounding garden, after he had been diagnosed with cancer. I confess I’ve never seen a DJ film but I’ve heard loads about his garden. It’s not officially open to visitors but it’s possible to walk around it and take photos. The windows were obscured with blinds and there was an air of sadness and desertion in the air. I believe it is now privately owned but there was little trace of human activity, apart from the well-tended garden.

Jarman died of aids in 1994 and had to spend his final days in a London hospital, away from his beloved coastal home. This article in The Guardian is very movingly written by Howard Sooley, and it tells of the film-director’s demise, his passion for Dungeness, the natural world and how he loathed the sterile hospital environment where he was forced to spend his last days on earth.

The poem on the black timber wall of Prospect cottage is from John Donne’s The Sun Rising and reads:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere

After feeding our souls we set off to the Britannia Inn to feed our bodies and I wouldn’t like to say they serve the best fish and chips in England, but they’re probably not far off. After sating our appetites we decided to work off the calories by walking up the 180 steps of the old lighthouse.  We were rewarded with spectacular sea views. As the sun came out, a huge rabble of butterflies flew up into the air, their dancing forms luminous against the silvery green of the plants. I was reminded of a hymn chosen for Jarman’s funeral, a favourite from his childhood, All Things Bright and Beautiful. 

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About susancarey

Writer and teacher living in Amsterdam. Trying to be mindful and occasionally succeeding!
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4 Responses to Dungeness, Dr Syn and Derek Jarman’s Garden

  1. nessafrance says:

    Your instinct following was plainly a good thing. And you had good weather, too. Dr Syn plainly had a colourful life – I must look out for the novel. Sometimes, it’s satisfying to read just a good yarn. I was brought up in north Kent and we sometimes took a day out down to the marshes. I must admit I prefer rolling countryside, and always have, but there’s something haunting about the area, nonetheless.

    Like

  2. susancarey says:

    Thanks for your comment, Vanessa. I hadn’t realised you grew up in north Kent. Just replied to your email but your address bounced. I’ll try again!

    Like

  3. Sherri says:

    I really enjoyed reading this very atmospheric post Susan. I have never been to either New Romney nor Dungeness but now I feel that I know them quite well! The book sounds just like the kind of yarn that is ideal to read on a little getaway! 🙂

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  4. susancarey says:

    Thanks, Sherri for reading my blog. Dr Syn is good if you are in the mood for an entertaining yarn!

    Like

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