Walk on the wild side at ‘Britain’s only desert’ in Dungeness

Its barren landscape featured on the cover of Pink Floyd album A Collection Of Great Dance Songs and former residents include film director Derek Jarman. That a million tourists make an annual trip to this strange three-mile stretch of land – an area so stark it’s known as Britain’s only desert – is no surprise. It boasts one of the largest shingle beaches in Europe and is a haven for wildlife watchers and nature fans, with more than 600 species of plants.

While just a 10-minute drive from our base at Parkdean Resorts’ Romney Sands Holiday Park, the best way to get there is by train.

Known as “Kent’s mainline in miniature”, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway boasts charming steam locomotives that are a third of the full-size versions.

Covering thirteen-and-a-half miles of track from the Cinque Port town of Hythe, terminating in Dungeness, there are five stations along the way, including one at the holiday park to pick us up.

With two young children in tow, it was a magical way to travel, with steam pouring into the sky from the train adding to the spooky Dungeness atmosphere.

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Starting at Hythe and travelling to the end of the track takes around an hour…just enough time to build up an appetite.

We stopped at the Pilot Inn in Dungeness, which dates back to 1633 and is steeped in smuggling history.

It’s reportedly made from the wrecked timber of Spanish vessel Alfresia, which was lured aground where its cargo of brandy and gold was stolen.

The pub, naturally, specialises in fish and we settled for two large cod and chips (£13.50 each). A good-value kids menu (£6.50) features all the usual classics such as spag bol, and sausage and chips.

Beers were tasty too with a selection of warming local ales, including a stonking Shepherd Neame Master Brew, while an extensive dessert menu kept the small ones happy.

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The pub sits in the shadow of the impressive Dungeness Lighthouse, a grade II listed building that was opened in 1904 by The Prince of Wales, later George V. Its light, which flashed every 10 seconds and could be seen for 18 miles, provided much-needed assistance to sailors trying to navigate the perilous waters of the English Channel.

Eventually decommissioned in 1960, it now serves as a tourist attraction where on a clear day you can enjoy spectacular views across Romney Marshes.

And it’s worth the admission (£4.40 for adults, £3 for kids) for the views inside too, with a series of stunning slate mezzanine floors supported by steel beams and wrought iron banisters.

With our cheeks thoroughly windswept and us feeling somewhat weary after a day’s sightseeing, we hopped on the train for the short trip back to the holiday park.

There, our family of four were staying in a rather luxurious willerby Rio Gold, a holiday home which was spacious and had all manner of mod-cons from a large TV to a USB charging point.

With the heating on, the whole caravan warmed up in minutes – perfect after a breezy day by the coast.

Facilities at the park tick every box for young families, in our case two girls, aged seven and 10.

The indoor pool was a particular highlight with the pair taking part in “water walking” – effectively running on the top of the pool inside a massive blow-up ball.

I was happy to watch from the sidelines on that one, although I was roped into playing crazy golf – the equipment was free to hire – as well as games in the amusement arcade.

For the adults, there was a very lively bingo scene (we won £45!) and a great bar.

Food at the Boathouse Restaurant was reasonably priced with mains of traditional pub grub around a tenner each. Staff were everywhere, always smiling and willing to help, not least with tips of where to visit in the area.

The beaches, of course, came highly recommended.And directly opposite the park was a cracker with acres of beautiful sand – the perfect spot for watching the world go slowly by.

A short drive away is Camber Sands, an equally exquisite beach where, upon parking your car, you have to climb over stunning sand dunes to access the seafront.

If you have time, take a trip to Rye. It is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in England where you can get lost in a labyrinth of cobbled streets and marvel at the crooked, half-timbered houses.

There we stumbled upon a charming hotel and café, Whitehouse Rye, in the high street, where we had “fancy” bacon rolls (with chilli jam, fried egg and crispy fried onions) and cinnamon French toast.

It certainly sustained us for an afternoon’s sightseeing visiting Rye Castle’s 1249 Ypres Tower and the 12th century St Mary’s Church, before hauling our tired limbs back to the holiday park where our cosy, warm caravan awaited us.

Coronavirus restrictions mean Parkdean sites are currently closed to April 30 and the new season is now due to start on May 1.

THE KNOWLEDGE Parkdean Resorts offers three nights’ self-catering at Romney Sands Holiday Park in Greatstone, Kent, from £169, staying in a two-bedroom Rochester Apartment (sleeps six) for arrival on September 4. See parkdeanresorts.co.uk or call 0330 123 4850.

More info at visitkent.co.uk

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