Have you ever wondered what the end of the world looks like? The Greeks thought it was beyond Gibraltar, the French experienced it with the opening of the first McDonald’s on French soil, but for me it will always be the post-apocalyptic landscape around Dungeness.
The bleakness of the landscape is incredible: you can’t see the horizon for all the shingle that is collecting here, being washed to an ever changing and treacherous coastline. And just in case you still can’t quite grasp the desolate nature of this place I will give you the ultimate symbol of impending doom: a nuclear power station.
I am not quite sure what happened to Dungeness A, and I am not too keen to find out. But in the shadows of Dungeness B you can find one of the most surprising and inspiring gardens in England: Prospect Cottage, the filmmaker Derek Jarman’s last work of art.
It is reported that he bought the derelict cottage after a visit to the nearby Pilot Inn, on a hunch in 1986 – the year Europe experienced the deadly consequences of nuclear power after the explosion at Chernobyl, and the year Jarman had been diagnosed with AIDS. He restored the cottage and set himself the task to forge a garden out of the shingle, collecting plants that would survive in the harsh conditions and arranging them amongst flotsam he found in the area.
You can clearly see the artist’s eye in the way the garden is arranged: the seemingly casual arrangement of native flowers betrays the careful consideration that went into the arrangement. Jarman had made a name for himself with films like Caravaggio and Blue, as well as by being an outspoken and prominent representative of the gay community in London at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. If you haven’t heard of him, here is a short overview of his work and impact. Howard Sooley, who accompanied Jarman through his last years up to his death in 1994, wrote a very emotional tribute to the garden in the Guardian. He also published a book on the subject, which in turn inspired me to go and visit the garden.
I was drawn to the small arrangements of stones, hardly visible against the shingle, which make you pause for a moment, forcing you to focus on a tiny detail. As is is a filmmaker’s garden it is no wonder that you become aware of the way in which your gaze is directed, like the movements of a camera: big sweeping long shots followed by a zooming in on various details.
The garden is clearly a labour of love. I can imagine the satisfaction and daily surprises Jarman would have experienced here, to see how every month brings out new colours and flowers, especially in a climate as hostile as this. Whoever is lokking after it since is clearly doing a wonderful job in keeping its beauty alive. Although Jarman will mostly be remembered for his bold and outspoken films, I think there is no better way to show death the finger than by creating a garden as life-affirming as this.