The Ancient Fishdom of Dungeness

Tank Green/ July 6, 2024/ Writing Walking

Photo of a dead fish on shingle. Four walkers are on the horizon. The sky is blue and sunny.

Photo of a dead fish on shingle. Four walkers are on the horizon. The sky is blue and sunny.

This is Fred, he’s a monument to the time when all of Dungeness was an ancient and powerful Fishdom. The locals leave him here as a reminder of their fishcesters, and so that the youngers may never doubt their elders. 

It is said that if you place your finger in Fred’s mouth, jiggle it about a bit like a key in an old lock, then turn your finger 45 degrees clockwise, you will be transported back to the time of the Fishdom. I didn’t do that because as much as I like taking photos of dead things, I don’t like touching them, at least not without gloves on.

Anyway, luckily for me, fisherwives still talk, especially to nature reporters with credentials as good as mine. So I sat down with Ruby and Maeve one sunny Sunday to learn about the true history of Dungeness. 

Once upon a time, Dungeness was home to an ancient and powerful Fishdom who ruled that headland for a long time with very little drama or mischief. Fish are a naturally collaborative sort, and so the crown was rotated across all species in a relaxed and cooperative way. A lady fish could be the supreme ruler as well as a man fish, and so could the intersexed fish too. Overall, the Fishdom functioned as an androgynous utopia wherein all fish used their unique talents in life affirming and Fishdom-building ways.

Ruby and Maeve said that the Fishdom achieved great things, and like the ancient Egyptians, no one is sure if the Fishdom was terrestrial in nature, or if it had help from gods or aliens. There is a healthy debate about this which happens every Worm Moon around a massive fire out on the headland. The learned elders of Dungeness bring sloe gin to toast to the new research uncovered by the fisherwives that year. 

One of the things I found quite interesting is that the unique shingle landscape of Dungeness is a legacy of the Fishdom. The ancient fishes made their homes, pebble by pebble, by carrying them up to the headland from the sea floor. They built the most elaborate of temples, castles, and towers out of the pebbles and mortared them with a masticated, magical blend of kelp, sea buckthorn, and roe. Sadly, as the Fishdom ended, so did the magic, and the buildings gradually settled down into shingle on the headland floor.

This is why it is so strikingly beautiful at Dungeness and Romney Marsh, and why so many artists make it their home. They are tapping into, and feeding off, the magic which remains deep down below the shingle floor. People who say it’s bleak and desolate at Dungeness have clearly cut off their magical tendrils, as all of us who have them intact see only a shimmering beauty and a space wide enough for genuine awe.

I might go back to Dungeness one of these days, and this time take some vinyl gloves. That way I will feel more inclined to stick my finger in Fred’s mouth and thereby experience the majesty of the Fishdom myself. I found a shell that day which was the most beautiful shell I have ever seen, but sadly lost it on the underground. I feel that there is a possibility that were I to make it to the Fishdom, then I would transform into a being with a shell just like the one I found. I would be brown and shiny and have the sharpest of spikes, and I would blend right in with the inhabitants of the Fishdom. Who knows, one day, if I stayed there long enough and did some good deeds, the fish might think I was cool enough to wear the Fishdom crown.

Listen to me read The Ancient Fishdom of Dungeness: