New generation of bumblebees welcomed home by the artists and gardeners of Dungeness

by Jeremy Miles

A number of my friends keep bees and it is largely  through them that I have become aware of the project to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee to the UK. Once commonplace across the south of England, they first stopped nesting some 25 years ago as their natural wildflower and grassland habitat started to decline. They were officially declared extinct in Britain in the year 2000.

Bumblebee

A short-haired bumblebee

Exciting news then that queen bees brought from Sweden have successfully produced offspring at the RSPB nature reserve at Dungeness. It’s a great reward for the conservationists behind the project who have been working with Kentish farmers to establish flower-rich meadows that will give the bees a sustainable habitat in Dungeness and Romney Marsh.

It seems to be working. Despite the cold wet start to spring and summer the new colony is showing every sign of enjoying its new home. What better place for them to find sanctuary? I have always loved Romney Marsh and Dungeness holds a special place in my affections. It is a location like no other. A windswept spit of shingle on England’s extreme south-east coast that is full of other-worldly charm and attracts not just bees but hardy souls who feel an affinity with its big skies, battered beauty and curious spirit.

Along with the fishermen who have long trawled its waters, Dungeness’s most prominent  inhabitants in recent years  have included the late artist and film-maker Derek Jarman and the huge nuclear power station that dominates its skyline.  Among the hardy dwellers who still call Dungeness home are a significant number of artists including  Paddy Hamilton who only yesterday, in a Twitter conversation  conducted in celebration of Talk Like A Pirate Day, told me  that the bees were  thrivin’.

Footnote: In one of those odd quirks of fate that tends to make life  travel in circles, many years ago when I was a very young reporter on the not-too-far-away Folkestone Herald  a favourite joke played on hapless young hacks involved concocting some tall story about bees: hives being stolen, strange diseases.. whatever and telling them to phone the Dungeness “Bee” station for a comment. The number they were given of course was the direct line for the Dungeness B Power Station. My how we laughed when they started rabbiting on to some poor sod from the Nuclear Power Authority about honey bees.Strangely it doesn’t seem so funny now. And it looks like the bees are, quite rightly, having the last laugh.

Below is a feature I wrote about Paddy Hamilton and the extraordinary place he calls home  two or three  years back for Amateur Gardening magazine:

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Paddy Hamilton's  Dungeness garden complete with lawn and picket fence           All Dungeness photographs by Hattie Miles

Paddy Hamilton’s Dungeness garden complete with lawn and picket fence. All Dungeness photographs by Hattie Miles

Words:  Jeremy Miles   Photographs: Hattie Miles

Why would anyone choose to establish a garden on a windswept, salt-burned spit of shingle that has been described as the cul-de-sac at the end of the world? For the late artist and film-maker Derek Jarman, the bleak beauty of Dungeness in Kent famously provided a backdrop for his creative endeavors. He used it as a film set,  a meeting place  and a sanctuary. His garden – in all its sculptural driftwood majesty – was an apt metaphor for his final years spent battling Aids and clinging to life on the edge. Plants clambered over the rusty remnants of war defences and bits of old boat.

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Paddy in his kitchen

For another artist Paddy Hamilton who has spent the last 11 years cultivating a garden on the beach in this bleak, blustery environment the reasons are somewhat different. He certainly finds the ‘ness hugely inspirational. It’s extraordinary colours and natural rough-hewn honesty inform his paintings, prints and woodcarvings. The garden however is a passion simply because he loves plants and gets pleasure from watching them grow.  He even loves the nuclear power station that looms over the landscape. “People think we’re mad to choose to live so close to something like that.” he said, gesturing towards the radio-active leviathan. “But I think it’s beautiful. It lights up at night like something from Las Vegas and the noises it makes are really weird and wonderful.”

As an artist Paddy has inevitably been drawn towards creating visually stimulating distractions with flotsam, jetsam and old buckets and brushes. A pathway to his studio door is paved with beachcombers treasures and lined with strips of rubber from an old quarry conveyor belt. But his is an altogether more traditional garden than Jarman’s creation along the beach at Prospect Cottage.  Derek Jarman died in 1994, five years before Paddy and his partner Helen Gillilan, also an artist, moved to Dungeness. They insist that their arrival in Kent was completely unconnected with the Jarmenesque  associations inextricably linked to the area. “What we do is not a homage to Jarman,” said Paddy. “I admire his garden but I don’t really think about it that much. Our garden is just part of our personalties. We can’t help it.”

Wander the ‘ness and you’ll find others who have left their artistic mark too. One day I discovered a collection of bottles arranged as a reminder of the seven deadly sins elsewhere a pile of lost  footwear washed onto the shore was presented as the ‘Imelda Marcos Seaside Collection’.

Dungeness: All human life is there

Dungeness: All human life is there

Brought up in Botswana where his father, a headmaster,  helped to establish village schools,  Paddy says he was drawn to Dungeness because in so many ways it reminds him of Africa. “It has big skies, huge arid open spaces and unbelievable colours. It’s like the Kalahari.” For a gardener there is also the added excitement that comes from watching plants survive against the odds.  It’s not easy. As he told Toby Buckland in a recent interview for BBC Gardener’s World: “If you can make a plant live for over three years here then it’s ancient…it’s an ancient oak.”

“It’s so true,” says Paddy when I remind him of his on-screen comment: “We always hope for the best but it’s the annuals that are our great friends. Perennials are just lucky if they keep going.”  He is philosophical about the disappointments that inevitably pepper his gardening year. “We have lovely tree lupins, they’ll last for maybe three years. But just when you think they’re doing really well they’ll probably fail. You get used to it. The conditions here are really harsh. It’s a very tough world to expect a plant to live in. Sometimes you just have to let them go.”

Mind you, as he points out: “If the roots can get down to the water table, and it’s just 10 feet below the surface, they’re away.” Paddy is now seriously planning to drill his own bore-hole. Watering he says is a major problem. Every drop of water, from the washing-up to the leftover bathwater, goes into his garden but on a bank of shingle it can never be enough. Some plants are natural survivors. His extraordinary plot – complete with white picket fence built from timber conveniently shed by a passing ship –  often has a profusion of poppies right up to Christmas. “The trouble it’s so dry that they get smaller and smaller and end up the size of a thumb-tacks. They’re very determined though.”

To give the garden a boost Helen cultivates seedlings and Paddy starts many of the plants off in a rugged hand-built cold-frame. He loves talking about the garden and becomes animated as he describes the annual cycle.  “We have bugloss that keeps going come what may and digitalis will have a bash, only in dwarf form,” he tells me.  “We planted hellebores that are joyfully doing their green flowering thing and will continue right through the winter. They will be the bees’ first food next year.  “Right now we have some lovely nicotiana which is doing really well, although it’s a bit later than usual and cosmos which hasn’t done well at all. Like everything else it’s usually much bigger. For instance generally get an amazing display of evening primroses but this year they’re really dwarfed. Half the normal size if not a quarter.”

Paddy's old bushes are rewarded for their labours with their own resting place.

Paddy’s old bushes are rewarded for their labours with their own resting place.

Paddy’s house is suitably bohemian but also homely and comfortable. It was once a 1920s Pullman railway carriage. “First class, non-smoking” he tells me with some pride. At some point though it was transplanted from its base at New Cross Station in South London to Dungeness and converted into a holiday club home for railway workers.  In the 1950s it went on the open market and has been gradually transformed by a series of owners.  Over the years Paddy and Helen have added stout sheds that serve as studio and workshop space and gradually created a beautiful home and much visited display spaces. As a maker and craftsman, Paddy is in his element. “It’s a happy little house this,” he tells me.  “And it’s so well made.”

The Imelda Marcos Seaside Collection

The Imelda Marcos Seaside Collection

It is the legacy of one of his predecessors however that makes the house – called Marina – an instant head-turner. It has a lawn. That’s right a lawn, effectively grown on the beach. Paddy relishes telling the story: “The fellow who lived here in the 60s and 70s wanted a proper lawn complete with stripes and everything. He spent 20 years fetching flints and carpets and old jumpers along with tons of topsoil in his Ford Escort Mach II and bit by bit he made a crofter style lawn. They still talk about it round here.”

The lawn is perhaps not quite what it used to be but Paddy and Helen love sitting in their garden enjoying the views that include the old lighthouse and, just a few hundred yards beyond, the massive nuclear reactor.  Standing on the swathe of grass outside his door he pointed at the lawn and told me:  “You know we couldn’t possibly ever dig this up, there are hundreds of unwanted Christmas sweaters under there.”

*Paddy Hamilton’s work can be seen at his Dungeness Open Studios. He welcomes visitors most days between 10am and 6pm and is happy to accept commissions. He also sells a small selection of plants.  It’s wise to check before travelling. For more information go to the website  www.paintings-for-sale.net which contains specific directions to Paddy’s home and studio.

Telephone: 01797 320242 or 01797 322296 *mobile 07815 047307

Contact for enquiries: hamiltonstudios@paintings-for-sale.net

Dungeness Open Studios situated at: Marina, Dungeness Rd, Romney Marsh, Kent. TN29 9ND 

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