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This is what life is like in Dungeness, Britain's only desert

Dungeness, Britain's only desert, is one of Kent's unique places – a huge expanse of shingle pockmarked with shacks and overshadowed by the looming nuclear power station.

Those without access to a car have to take the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway to get there, with sports train carriages so small it looks as if the average human adult would struggle to squash themselves in.

The power station looms large over the landscape
The power station looms large over the landscape

This all paints a compelling picture, one which attracts curious tourists who seek the experience of the barren landscape for themselves.

According to a website dedicated to the Romney Marsh, Dungeness now attracts more than a million visitors every year.

Travelling down to the area on a balmy Wednesday morning though, things look relatively quiet.

Car parks along the main road through the estate contain only a few vehicles and several dog walkers could be seen heading towards the edge of the coast.

Sporting a picturesque sight out across the glittering water, anglers sit along the length of the shore hoping for a catch or two.

Anglers enjoying the mid-morning breeze
Anglers enjoying the mid-morning breeze

John, an enthusiastic fisherman not from the area, explains the spot is one of the best for fishing: "It's probably one of the top ones in Kent for species. They used to call it the cod mecca.

"It throws up all sorts – skate, thornback ray, dogfish, smooth-hound sharks.

"At night time you'd probably see even more anglers down here – you don't get much of a phone signal here so the missus doesn't bother you!"

Enjoying the sea breeze, a woman sits on a bench at the tip of the boardwalk taking photographs of the water.

Now living in Manchester, Liz makes a pilgrimage to Dungeness once a year to soak up the sights and reminisce.

Liz makes an annual pilgrimage to Dungeness
Liz makes an annual pilgrimage to Dungeness

Having partly grown up in New Romney, the place still holds great significance to her: "It's a feeling, this place gives me a feeling of contentment.

"It's bleak, especially if you walk over shingle up the other way, then there's the power station...but it all fits.

"It could almost be an alien landscape – I miss it, I just love this area."

Liz represents the respectful visitors to the estate, who keep to the designated paths and quietly enjoy what Dungeness has to offer.

But there is another type of visitor – the kind who forget that the estate is also a permanent home for scores of people.

"It could almost be an alien landscape..."

Earlier this month Dungeness was hailed as the county beach offering the 'most peace and quiet', an award Mike Golding would likely snort at.

A permanent resident of the estate for decades, the retiree purchased his home for a meagre £750 in the 1970s.

He loves the view out across towards the Old Lighthouse and describes the peace and quiet of the hazy Wednesday morning as "idyllic".

But, of late, Mike has become increasingly frustrated with weekend visitors, who will often trudge across his garden and peek through the windows of his neighbours' properties.

Others will bomb down the tarmacked straight on motorbikes in groups of 10 or more.

The view from Mike's front garden
The view from Mike's front garden

Last weekend, he even spotted a couple of women opposite his home squatting to urinate on the shingle.

The railway station's public toilets are a five-minute walk away.

He said: "It's been unbelievable recently, they walk across your garden. I was in my office out the front the other day and they were just staring at me.

"Honestly, it's like being in a bloody zoo."

As we sit together in his front garden, a group of visitors saunter right up to the porthole of the opposite house and squash their faces against the glass, peering into somebody's home.

Visitors peering into the window of someone's home
Visitors peering into the window of someone's home

The Dungeness resident says on weekends the place is teeming with people who don't respect the estate: "Look at today, it's idyllic, come Saturday and it's a different story."

It's no secret that the permanent dwellers of Dungeness tend to be private people who do not always want to engage with the media.

And who can blame them? They aren't many places in the UK where a reporter will knock on your door with the hopes of an interview simply because of where you've chosen to live.

Even Mike, who graciously took the time to talk about his decades-long experience of the area, vehemently refused having his photo taken.

And the added frustration of thoughtless visitors snooping and prying is unlikely to thaw them to outsiders anytime soon.

The staff of the Dungeness Snack Shack were rushed off their feet with orders
The staff of the Dungeness Snack Shack were rushed off their feet with orders

To combat the problem, Mike says he represents a number of residents who want to be able to erect fences along their boundaries to deter tourists from traipsing off the roads and paths.

But Dungeness is an area straitjacketed with special measures and regulations because of its ecological significance.

Aside from in part being a national nature reserve, it is also: a Sight of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area (SPA), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), and a Ramsar site – a wetland of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention.

KentOnline understands that this plethora of measures would make it impossible for a resident to erect a simple fence without potentially causing some level of damage to the landscape.

Natural England was approached for a comment on whether that position would be likely to change anytime soon.

Bollards have been put out to stop visitors from parking along the road
Bollards have been put out to stop visitors from parking along the road

A spokesperson from EDF, which purchased the estate in 2015, said: "Our partners the Romney Marsh Countryside Partnership are a constant presence on the estate to encourage visitors to behave responsibly while enjoying the landscape.

"We have also put up information boards across the estate advising visitors that people live in the properties in the unique environment and urging those visiting to treat the area, and properties, with respect.

"Dungeness is a highly protected conservation area and open landscape and we continue to review a broad range of visitor management measures."

That's not to say everyone who owns a property in Dungeness agrees with Mike, though.

The area has become incredibly popular for AirBnB stays, with an average price of around £250 per night for a stay in a bungalow on the shingle.

French energy company EDF bought the Dungeness Estate in 2015
French energy company EDF bought the Dungeness Estate in 2015

A larger property, like the awarding-winning Pobble House, will set you back £552 per night.

Netting more than £4,500 for a week's stay, you can imagine there are a fair share of owners who are happy to welcome an increased interest in the place.

But according to Rebecca Jubert, a recently-permanent resident, a split is growing between those who have lived here for decades and the DFL's – an acronym for people who have moved 'down from London'.

Rebecca said: "There is a real clash between the DFLs, of which to be fair I am one, and the locals."

She moved from Crawley to up sticks to Dungeness and is busy converting her home into an impressive railway-themed stay for guests.

Rebecca says there is a "clash" between locals and the DFLs
Rebecca says there is a "clash" between locals and the DFLs

But Rebecca, having had her own experiences of prying tourists, also feels sorry for people like Mike who yearn for the quiet summer weekends that no longer exist, and hopes the area isn't taken advantage of too much by those keen to overly-capitalise on visitors.

She said: "I could have an ice-cream van out there and make an absolute killing, but do I really need to?"

The reclusive nature of Dungeness's dwellers make it difficult to explore quite how deep the discontent for visitors runs – even the Dungeness Resident's Association was not contactable.

Even so, there's a sense there could well be a storm brewing and that many long-term inhabitants, like Mike, just long for the quiet weekends in their strange, beautiful desert.

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