Prospect Cottage, Dungeness

Prospect Cottage, Dungeness

Heading into south-east London via docklands in early spring last year, I passed a spray of flowers propped against a wall to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Derek Jarman. The artist lived in various riverside warehouses in the 1970s, arriving at the third floor of Block B Butler's Wharf in 1973. During his first summer there, he wrote in his diary: "The studio is a forest of emerald-green columns, at sunrise, the ducks float in on the driftwood over a glacial river which reflects orange and vermilion, while the sun pours through the doors." By 1979 , however, he had jettisoned the old grain warehouse, having tired of lording it over a "gay Butlins".I've never been a fan of Jarman's art or even his films, many of which feature in a new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. As a native Londoner with a link to the neighbourhood that Jarman made his home in the 1970s, and with a passion for the Kent coast around Dungeness where he lived in the years before his death in 1994, I prefer his diaries (Modern Nature, Dancing Ledge, Smiling in Slow Motion) and the early Super 8 footage in which he documents his impressions of these landscapes. The bleakness of the redundant docks in the 1970s appealed to Jarman much as the shingle beach at Dungeness did in the following decade. His relationship with the Thames was succeeded by a passion for the English coast.

His writings are dotted with sketches from his childhood holidays at the English seaside: Bexhill, where his mother grew up; travelling to Bournemouth and being rewarded with sixpence for spotting Corfe Castle before his sister; Southend, the week before graduating; sketching the landscape at Seaview, the Isle of Wight, during the summer England won the world cup. His most cherished coastal memories were of the holiday his family took at Kilve on the Somerset coast, creating driftwood sculptures on the beach: "Oklahoma! on the gramophone, maidenhair ferns watered with cold tea, a cat and a boxer puppy. Bulb catalogues, scented balsam poplars, a vegetable garden ..."

Long after Kilve, Jarman discovered a personal heaven at the final stop on the diminutive Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway, where the 23km coastal journey comes to a halt. His affinity with this landscape was first hinted at years before - squinted at from Ashenden in the 1970s, on a day away from the docklands . He had no idea then it would be his final home.

Jarman described the marshy peninsula of Dungeness, with its expansive shingle and its headland dwellings scattered like shrubs, as the "ivory fang of a prehistoric shark". His name has become synonymous with the place, and his later diaries are dominated by it. It is a terrain that has captured the imagination of other writers, notably HG Wells and E Nesbit. In The First Men in the Moon, written from the author's home at Sandgate, using Romney Sands and Dungeness as the setting, Wells likened it to a "raft on the sea". It is on the marsh that the protagonist, Bedford, meets the eccentric Cavor, who has discovered the means to transport men to the moon. When they eventually arrive there, the landscape of the moon is not too dissimilar from that of Dungeness, as viewed from his bungalow at Lympne: "bulging masses of a cactus form, and scarlet and purple lichens that grew so fast they seemed to crawl over the rocks". When Bedford returns to earth, it is to the exact spot from which he was dispatched weeks before: "Away to the right curved the land, a shingle bank with little hovels, and at last a lighthouse ..."

Wells moved to Sandgate in 1898, and built his home - Spade House - in 1900, the year he wrote The First Men in the Moon. With his wife, he used to visit the children's writer Edith Nesbit and her husband Hubert Bland in Dymchurch when they were taking their summer holidays in Kent.

Nesbit first visited Dymchurch during the drought of 1893. Two years before her death in 1924, and having married again, she settled permanently on Romney Sands. Home was two huts joined by a passage the couple referred to as the "Suez canal", which had previously served as a storehouse and a laboratory for the military. This set-up struck some visitors as bizarre, as did Jarman's later choice of home, only minutes away in Dungeness - a run-down cottage built in 1900 for a local fishing family.

For Nesbit, the landscape more than matched those of the idyllic summers of her childhood, spent in Dieppe, Paris and Bordeaux. At home, in her final days, she lay propped up in her four-poster bed, with a panoramic view of the marsh and "the little lovely hills of Kent". For Jarman, too, this stretch of coast outshone the foreign settings of earlier summers: "Never in my sleepless nights had I witnessed a spectacle like this. Not the antique bells of the flocks moving up a Sardinian hillside, the barking dogs and the sharp cries of shepherd boys, nor moonlit nights sailing the Aegean, nor the scented nights and fireflies of fire island, smashed glass star-strewn through the piers of the Hudson - nothing can equal this."

Echoing Bedford's description of the landscape as "the most uneventful place in the world", Jarman wrote of how he had rediscovered his "boredom" at Dungeness. "The train could carry me to London," he wrote in Modern Nature. "But I resist."

Prospect Cottage, the exterior of which Jarman painted black with sherbet-yellow window frames, was bought in 1986 with money he inherited after his father's death. It was the first and last home he owned. Soon he was aware that Aids was circling him "like a deadly cobra". In his attitude to this subject, too, his elitism and sense of superiority were evident. There was no death greater than that of the gay auteur with Aids, according to Jarman: "all the brightest and the best trampled to death - surely even the great war brought no more loss into one life in just 12 months, and all this as we made love not war".

Even at Dungeness he could not escape the ugliness of the modern world: on a day out from Bart's hospital, sick, tired, with his hands in soil or shingle up to the plastic identity band on his wrist, he observed of neighbouring Greatstone, where many working-class Londoners had retired: "Can you find in these four miles of houses one constructed with love or care? This is not covered up by their names: Ben Venue, Costa Lotta, Seadrift. Behind them, Hopeville: a scatter of concrete and caravans."

Snobbery permeates Jarman's writings, almost as much as sex and travel. In his view, only an artist has the ability to transform debris, found objects and a dilapidated seaside home into a thing of beauty.

Both Jarman and Nesbit chose to end their days living on a coastal stretch that could not be further removed from the London landscape of their youth. Both had thrived in the cultural margins of the capital. Nesbit was an author steeped in the politics of class and gender; Jarman was preoccupied with the politics of sexuality. Nesbit is buried beneath a spreading elm in the churchyard of St Mary's-in-the-Marsh, Jarman in the grounds of St Clement's at nearby Old Romney.

The garden at Prospect Cottage began when Jarman found a piece of flint on the beach at low tide, some driftwood and a dog rose. He was a boy again on the beach at Kilve, creating sculptures, but this time the tide would not wash them away. In a neighbour's garden, along the road at Windrift, Jarman created an artwork from a piece of slate on which he carved the words: "The timeless sadness of childhood." (These works now appear on the pages of books and glossy newspaper supplements with features targeted at those scouting for a second home on the coast.) On the day he first visited the cottage, Jarman left Dungeness with thoughts of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach": "Down the vast edges drear / and naked shingles of the world." He asked the previous owner if the sound of the wind ever ceased at Dungeness. It was a soundtrack, a tinnitus, a hum to which the residents became immune. When the wind rose on an October night in 1987 heralding the storm that swept across England, it was reminiscent of that created by Cavor in The First Men in the Moon for launching himself and Bedford into outer space: "A large fragment of fencing came sailing past me, dropped edgeways ... In that instant the whole face of the world had changed. The tranquil sunset had vanished, the sky was dark with scurrying clouds, everything was flattened and swaying with the gale."

Prospect Cottage was severely shaken by the storm, and Dungeness was left without electricity. "I stared at the glittering power plant on the horizon," Jarman wrote, "and wondered if, like the Emerald City and the great Oz himself, my life and this cottage had been dreamt all those years ago ..." Twilight here, according to Jarman, was like twilight nowhere else in England, or even the world: "You feel as you stand here that tired time is having a snooze."