The footpaths of Dungeness

Dungeness is a shingle promontory on the south coast of Kent. Technically a desert and the largest expanse of shingle in Europe, it’s not a traditionally beautiful location. Its vast flatness gives the illusion that nothing much grows there, two nuclear power stations dominate the skyline, and debris from the fishing industry litters the beaches, all of which act in stark contrast to the area’s nature reserve status. Here are just a handful of the compelling sites This Way explore on their Dungeness map.

Image courtesy of This Way

Image courtesy of This Way

1 Dungeness A and B

Two nuclear power stations and their trail of pylons dominate the skyline. Dungeness A has now been decommissioned, after being switched on in 1965, and is slowly being demolished. Its huge neighbour, Dungeness B, remains operational, powering 1.5 million of London’s 3.5 million households. As a visitor, the sheer proximity of the power stations can add an unsettling undertone, a reality that becomes especially stark when reading the ‘emergency procedures’ boards dotted around the estate. However, if you are lucky enough to spend a night in Dungeness, there is a gentle beauty in the mass of twinkling lights.

2 The Boil

Out to sea, just in front of the power stations, The Boil is a bubbling mass of water. It’s easy to spot as it’s usually surrounded by a cloud of seabirds. Nuclear power stations use 100 million litres of water per hour; when the water has run through the cooling system it’s pumped back into the ocean, now a warm 12ºC. Sadly small fish get caught in the filters and are pumped back into the ocean through the same pipes, creating a rich feeding ground for seabirds.

3 Old Lighthouse

The drift of shingle has reshaped the land enough times that five lighthouses have been and gone since the 1600s. Historically, lighthouses have been vital on this headland, which has been a hotspot for shipwrecks. Today, two lighthouses remain. A walk up the 169 steps to the top of the no-longer operational Victorian ‘Old Lighthouse’ gives impressive views across the shingle ridges.

The Dungeness Map, by This Way, is a double-sided map detailing 11 points of interest in this curious place, £5. This Way also offers six- and 12-month map subscriptions where every month a postcard featuring a walk and stories from across the UK is delivered to your door; this-way.co

Adrift in the Atlantic

French biologist Alain Bombard was so convinced that castaways could survive purely on the sea’s natural provisions that he set out to prove it on a most extraordinary voyage

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In the spring of 1951, French biologist and physician Alain Bombard was asleep in the residents’ quarters of a hospital in Boulogne-sur-mer when he was woken by a call: the trawler Notre-Dame-de-Peyragues had missed her course in the mist and broken up on the outer breakwater of the harbour. Bombard arrived at a scene that would stay with him for the rest of his life: 43 men piled up on top of each other “like dislocated puppets”, their feet bare and lifejackets intact. The doctor and his colleagues failed to revive a single one of them.

Bombard thought about how one simple error of navigation had caused the deaths of 43 men and orphaned 78 children. He thought of the 150 fishermen killed each year just in his region of France, and the 200,000 who suffered the same fate every year around the world. More than a quarter of them made it to a lifeboat, only to die in prolonged agony from lack of food and water, or the well-documented perils of losing one’s mind at sea.

Bombard became convinced that castaways could survive for long periods of time by feasting on what the sea could provide, and that countless lives could be saved if lifeboats were fitted with a few simple pieces of equipment: fish hooks, fine nets for collecting plankton – a source of vitamin C – and presses for squeezing fresh water out of fish. He even argued that drinking small amounts of seawater – a maximum of one and a half pints per day – could prolong life, contradicting centuries of evidence to the contrary. But how could he prove such a thing?

To demonstrate his point, in 1952, Bombard embarked on a singular voyage. In the hope of saving thousands of future castaways, he determined to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a 15-foot (4.5m) inflatable dinghy, using only the sea for sustenance. Onboard the aptly named l’Hérétique, he would have a sextant and a watch for navigating, his fishing kit, and a tarpaulin for shelter and catching rainwater. Emergency rations would be sealed within the craft, and checked by officials once he reached the other side of the Atlantic.

He set his sights on the West Indies, plotting a course between two dreaded dangers: the Doldrums and the Sargasso Sea. The former was an area of low pressure, where two powerful trade winds “meet in a tremendous conflict in a no-man’s land of violent storms, unpredictable turbulence and disquieting calms” (Alain Bombard, The Bombard Story, 1953). The latter was far more frightening.

On 19 October 1952 Bombard set off from the Canaries, cheered on by friends and accompanied by a “veritable convoy” of yachts. Even though the stiff breeze that sped him away from the harbour abandoned his lifeboat shortly after and left him drifting, he slept well that first night, tucking his tarpaulin up to his neck like a blanket and dropping off under a “lovely, luminous sky”.

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It didn’t take long for the reality of his solo voyage to sink in, however. After two more nights drifting aimlessly, a light breeze, which soon became a tempest, pushed l’Hérétique further into the Atlantic where it tossed the inflatable craft about like a cork. Confident in the lifeboat’s stability, Bombard decided to sleep it out, waking soon after to find himself completely surrounded by water. He began frantically bailing, scooping water out with his hat for the next two hours while more waves broke over the boat.

Being only a few days into his voyage, Bombard felt confident in his ability to weather the storms. But as October wore on, l’Hérétique continued to be buffeted by gales. The sail ripped; if he managed to sleep at all, Bombard did so shivering, encrusted with salt. When not bailing water or stitching up his sail, he mused on the nature of fear and despair. Above all, he was afraid of fear itself, recognising that increasing tiredness and exhaustion led him to expect the worst.

To keep his growing melancholia at bay, Bombard busied himself with catching fish, squeezing water out of the small ones using a makeshift press and cutting slits in the larger ones and drinking straight from their bodies like some Gollum of the Atlantic. He trapped seabirds and ate them raw and netted two daily spoonfuls of plankton to top up his vitamin C levels and keep scurvy at bay.

Sea-fearing

But fear kept creeping in and, come late October, Bombard had become fixated by the condition of his boat. Each day, he inspected the inflatable craft meticulously, noting where friction had worn the rubberised canvas thin, prising barnacles off to keep its undercarriage in tip-top condition, and putting his ear to the material to check for sounds of rubbing like a doctor with a stethoscope.

So imagine his horror when, in the middle of the Atlantic, he began to be hounded by swordfish. By now, Bombard had become a dab hand at batting away sharks, but he was defenceless against swordfish, fearing that he would enrage them if he engaged in conflict (swordfish were, he had read, prone to fits of fury). He described “12 hours of terror” fending off “a large swordfish of undeniably menacing aspect … seemingly in a rage, his dorsal fin raised like hackles”.

It’s worth noting that, by this point, Bombard was also completely lost. “[I] can no longer determine my longitude with certainty,” he admitted on 26 October. “I shall just have to guess it from the time the sun reaches the meridian”. Stubbornly, he pushed on, but his body was beginning to show the effects of his journey. He started to lose toenails and developed a rash. Losing weight, he found it impossible to get comfortable; every position he sat or lay in caused him pain.

By November, having failed to read an accurate longitude for weeks, Bombard was convinced that he was approaching the end of his journey, unaware that he hadn’t yet passed the Cape Verde Islands. Expecting to see land each new day, and being sorely disappointed, his mood dwindled. And as the days wore on, he started to become increasingly superstitious: he became obsessed with seabirds, which teased him to despair with their promise of land; Wednesdays took on a special meaning; and he believed that he could calculate wind speed by simply listening to its note against the sail.

The only tangible presence being his own, Bombard began to take comfort in the creatures around him, documenting his encounters with all the drama and character you would expect from someone who hadn’t had human contact for months. He was visited at four o’clock each day by the same petrel and was kept company for almost the entire journey by a shoal of ‘dolphins’ – actually dorados, a large type of fish, which jostled around his boat. “I began to share their sensations and reactions,” he wrote, “eating the same food and catching the same flying fish”.

Between the horror of swordfish attacks and the creeping onset of paranoia, Bombard also experienced moments of pure wonder – a half-eaten shearwater carcass illuminating the sail with a ghostly phosphorescence – and at times, he became overwhelmed by the beauty of his surroundings, writing long eloquent odes to the ocean. Staying awake one evening to check the time of the moonrise, Bombard was overcome by the feeling of what a strange and formidable element the sea is, writing:

It seems to form part of a system so entirely different from normal existence that it might belong to another planet. But there it is at my feet, alive yet inscrutable. Here and there lights appear in the depths... They look like stars half hidden in a cloudy night sky. The fish around me leap and swim to and fro, protagonists of an unseen and mysterious existence. Life at the surface is only the thin upper layer of another world.

Approaching desperation

Around mid-November, time began to weigh heavily on Alain Bombard. He suffered a 14-day bout of diarrhoea and would go days without sleep. To top it off, the skin on his feet had started to peel away in strips and he was down to his last couple of toenails. Towards the end of November, the wind disappeared entirely and our castaway drifted for over a week, his mood ebbing, his eyes aching from straining on the horizon. Unbeknown to him, he had reached the edge of the Sargasso Sea.

Stewing in his own thoughts under a terrible sun, Bombard soon fell “prey to every emotion”. His paranoia became overwhelming; he believed the clouds were deliberately avoiding the sun so as to deny him shade. He decided that he would not attempt to fight the next storm, trusting his fate to God. “What have I done to deserve all this?” he wrote, dictating his will and final wishes, and holding the authors of his castaways’ handbook accountable for his inevitable death.

But just as Bombard was falling into despair, a miracle happened – and it did, in fact, fall on a Wednesday. He ran into the Arakaka, a passenger cargo steamer out of Liverpool. At first he was reluctant to board, fearing it would invalidate his experiment, but when the captain shouted his location over the tannoy – and it was 600 miles (966km) further east than he thought – Bombard scrambled aboard shouting: “This is it. Fifty-three days, I give up”.

He accepted a shower and a light meal: a fried egg, spoonful of cabbage and a slither of liver. He knew he would be held accountable for his self-imposed rule breaking, but his need for human contact was too great and accepting this hospitality, arguably, saved his life. The encounter gave Bombard the morale boost he so sorely needed, and he set off with renewed vigour on 10 December, having been taught how to read longitude.

On Christmas Eve 1952, the French biologist staggered on to a Barbados beach, 65 days after setting out from the Canaries. He had lost 55 pounds (25kg), was severely anaemic, and found it hard to walk, but he was alive. And, crucially, he had proved his point, at least in his own mind.


This story featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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For more extraordinary tales of remarkable journeys, pick up a copy of our latest book The Odysseum: Strange journeys that obliterated convention (Chambers, 2018)

Newspapers from the edge of the world

Born out of trouble and strife in the world’s most inhospitable places, handmade newspapers were essential for passing the time and boosting morale and comradeship in the bleakest of circumstances

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The Wipers Times (1916)

Beneath the bludgeoned Belgian city of Ypres, accompanied by nothing more than a printing press, a dusty gramophone and a piano (played full blast to mask the sound of German shells), two British soldiers – Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson – published the first 12-page edition of what became the ‘unofficial’ newspaper of the Western Front. The Wipers Times (a phonetic pronunciation of Ypres by British soldiers) contained a mix of tales from the trenches and bawdy British satire lampooning senior allied officials. Needless to say, it was a welcome reprieve from the horrifying realities of the First World War. Twenty two editions were published before the war came to a close.

The Bullfrog Miner (1905)

Finding its feet at the end of the Gold Rush, The Bullfrog Miner was one of many short-lived periodicals providing news for mining communities. According to folklore, the initial rush to the Bullfrog district caused a heated battle between two editors, CW Nicklin and Frank P Mannix, who each claimed rights to the eponymous and irrefutably catchy namesake. After heated exchanges, the dispute was eventually settled when Nicklin renamed his paper The Beatty Bullfrog Miner (far catchier).

The Vernon Guard (1890)

Legend has it that the wildest of the Wild West were, in fact, the editors of the frontier newspapers that circulated throughout the Cattle Kingdom. Never afraid to put their opinion to paper, they were considered by many as unofficial community orators, chronicling the lives of their readership. So outspoken was the editor of the Vernon Guard, he once met with the threat of suffering a “sufficient number of holes” by the local sheriff. Sources suggest the editor did meet an untimely end; the pen is not, it would seem, mightier than a gun.

The Snowbound (1890)

The Snowbound is the stuff of journalistic legend. The story goes that in 1890, during a perilous Nevada winter, 600 passengers were stranded in Reno on the Southern Pacific Railroad. George T McCully took it upon himself to relieve the distress of his freezing companions by printing a paper. The Snowbound, “issued every weekday afternoon by S P Prisoner in Car No. 36”, was a four-page daily with the outside pages written in blue ink and the inside written in pencil. Sources suggest the publication wasn’t entirely successful, possibly because the editor charged the princely sum of 25¢ per issue.

The Antarctic Sun (1997)

Serving scientists, explorers and polar gardeners alike, The Antarctic Sun reports on all manner of news from this remote part of the world, funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the US Antarctic Programme. Expect to find stories on procedure for budding physicists on the search for neutrinos, comic strips, musings on the ‘utilitarian’ beauty of research station architecture and the cold hard facts of life in a sub-zero climate. The current editor, Mike Lucibella, publishes weekly during the austral summer, with the occasional mid-winter special.

Words by Matthew Iredale

These stories feature in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, alongside a fascinating article about the history of polar newspapers, written by Professor Elizabeth Leane. Pick up a copy of issue 8 today.

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Lighthouses of the British Isles

Britain’s coastline is punctuated by over 300 lighthouses, built in some of the most inhospitable places. Illustrator Ben Langworthy embarked on a mission to draw every single one of them and tell their stories – we shine a light on three.

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Ardnamurchan Point

Ardnamurchan is the most westerly point of mainland UK. Local legends tell of premonitions, kings and great battles, and there may be a husk of truth in such tales – in 2011, archaeologists uncovered a Viking boat burial nearby. The lighthouse, built in an ‘Egyptian’ style, was designed by Alan Stevenson (one of the great Scottish engineers) and fi rst lit in 1849. Today you can call in for a cuppa at the keepers’ cottages.

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Trwyn Du

Trwyn Du, meaning ‘black point’ in Welsh, was first lit in 1838 and stands at around 96ft high, overlooking Puffin Island. Its engineer James Walker, keen to pioneer new innovations, installed an early example of a water closet with a drain at the base of the tower. This proved a bad idea during storms, when seawater had a tendency to surge up the drain, giving a nasty shock to any unsuspecting keeper using the facilities at the time.

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Bell Rock

The oldest lighthouse still in use in the world, Bell Rock is named after the rock on which it sits. How the rock gained its name is immortalised in the ballad ‘The Inchcape Rock’, written by Robert Southey in 1802. In the tale, the Abbot of Arbroath installs a bell on the rock to warn mariners of the reef, but a villainous pirate throws the bell into the sea. In a twist of fate, the pirate is himself later wrecked upon the rocks.

Follow Ben’s progress on Instagram @benlangworthyillustration or via his column at caughtbytheriver.net.

You can also buy signed A4 prints of Ben’s lighthouses on his etsy page.

The Odysseum: Larry 'Lawnchair' Walters (1949-1993)

Fresh from our third book The Odysseum – meet Larry Walters, the truck-driver who flew away on his own lawn chair.

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flickr/BrandonWalts

What do you do if your life’s ambition – to become a pilot with the US Air Force – gets shot down by poor eyesight? If you’re Larry Walters, you take matters into your own hands. In 1982 the California truck-driver, unperturbed by the stringent recruitment standards of the USAF, decided to take to the air in his own unique way: by attaching a large cluster of weather balloons to a lawn chair.

First, Larry and his girlfriend forged a requisition slip from his employer, Filmfair Studios, enabling them to purchase the 45 8-foot (2.4 m) weather balloons by saying they were to be used in a commercial. They then set about inflating the balloons and attaching them to Larry’s patio chair. He put on a parachute, strapped himself in and took off, carrying with him only the absolute essentials – a pellet gun (to shoot balloons if he went too high), a CB radio, a camera, sandwiches and, most essential
of all, a four-pack of beer.

The plan was to float 30 feet (9 m) above the Mojave Desert for a few hours, then effect a pleasant and gradual descent. To Larry’s horror, however, the chair rose from his yard in San Pedro much faster than expected – he was eventually to reach a maximum altitude of 15,000 feet (4,600 m) – and was soon drifting over Los Angeles and into the primary approach corridor for Long Beach Airport, where he was spotted by several commercial airliners.

By this point, Larry had achieved his primary aim – to fly – but now faced the problem of how not to fly. Floating in LA airspace was not, he knew, going to make him very popular. Initially, though, he was too scared to shoot any of the balloons in case he unbalanced and fell from his madcap contraption. He tried getting in touch with REACT – a citizen’s band radio monitoring organisation. As he put it to them:

‘… the difficulty is, ah, this was an unauthorised balloon launch and, uh, I’m sure my ground crew has alerted the proper authority. But, uh, just call them and tell them I’m okay.’

After 45 minutes of literally hanging around, he eventually plucked up the courage to shoot a few balloons – just before the gun went overboard. Fortunately, the cull, as far as it went, proved sufficient to get him moving in the right direction. The slow descent concluded among power cables, blacking out an entire Long Beach neighbourhood for 20 minutes.

Upon picking him up, the Long Beach Police Department made a decisive statement: ‘We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed.’ Walters was eventually charged with ‘operating a civil aircraft within an airport traffic area without establishing and maintaining 2-way communications with the control tower’. He was fined $4,000 – but his pilot’s licence couldn’t be suspended, since he didn’t have one.

Having achieved his dream, Larry spent a short period as a motivational speaker and appeared on both The David Letterman Show and The Late Show. Eventually, however, he went back to a simple life – working for the United States Forest Service and as a security guard. He died in 1993, but will always be remembered as ‘Lawnchair Larry’, inspiring a song, various copycat flights and the 2003 Australian film Danny Deckchair, starring Rhys Ifans.

Larry was by no means the only weather balloon pilot – there have been many cases of people putting thin bits of rubber between themselves and an unpleasant meeting with terra firma. One such case was the Brazilian priest Father Adelir Antônia de Carli, whose 2008 foray into the atmosphere left him both wet and headless.

Seemingly well prepared – he was an experienced skydiver, and he’d trained extensively in survival skills prior to his launch – there was one huge gap in his safety plan, quickly exposed when he caught a breeze and got blown out across the Atlantic. While floating over the ocean, he rang the authorities from his mobile phone to ask someone to explain how his GPS equipment worked. Not long after that he lost contact entirely. A few months later, some of his balloons, along with the lower half
of his body, were found floating in the sea.

On a happier note, Tom Morgan – a member of the Bristol-based League of Adventurists, reached a height of 8,000 feet (2,438 m) in October 2017 by tying 100 helium balloons to a camping chair and flying over the Sahara. He returned to Earth safe, dry and with all parts of his body intact.

Words: Jen Rowe

The Odysseum is available to pre-order via Amazon.