On the edge of detection:
The Dungeness National Nature Reserve


Destination: Audi explores a stretch of ‘desert’ along the Kent coast that was once the base for a primitive form of radar.

Owen Leyshon explores The Dungeness

The Dungeness National Nature Reserve in Kent is often called Britain’s only desert, but think more post-apocalyptic wasteland than golden sand dunes. Sitting on a headland that juts out into the English Channel, this 468-acre estate is one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world.

   We have made the journey down from London in Audi’s all-new Q7 to take a closer look at Dungeness’s famous sound mirrors. These acoustic structures were a primitive method of detecting enemy aircraft, prior to the invention of radar – a technology that plays a key role in many of Audi’s driver assistance systems. Despite their state of disrepair, these three giant, decaying concrete structures are still a sight to behold, towering above the landscape.

‘These sound mirrors were at the forefront of technology, but nowadays they are slowly being overrun by the overgrowth’ - Owen Leyshon

   Owen Leyshon, leader of the charity which runs the estate, is an encyclopaedia of local knowledge. ‘It was thought the sound mirrors would be the best way to give an early warning of an air raid,’ he explains. ‘Instead of using electric wave signals like radar does now, sound mirrors were based on acoustics. In the 1930s these were at the forefront of technology, but nowadays they are slowly being overrun by the overgrowth, despite our best preservation efforts. Before long I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re relegated to the confines of the history books.’

   Leaving the sound mirrors behind, we decide to explore some more of the estate and spot a fishing boat pulling up to the shore. There we meet Joe Thomas and his uncle David. The Thomas family owns the Dungeness Fish Hut, and are now the only fishermen based here. Like our Audi Q7, their fishing boat uses high-tech satellite navigation.

   ‘We use up-to-date charts on our ships that precisely map out the seabed. Fishing boats have had satellite navigation for years – in fact, we were using the technology before cars,’ Joe tells us.

   As we talk, the sky darkens and the heavens open. We say a hasty goodbye, dive back into the Q7 and program our own sat nav to take us home. It might not show hidden reefs and rocks, but it doesn’t need to. All we care about is the way home, towards a nice hot cup of tea.

Written by John Silcox. Photographs by Richard Pardon.


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