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What better way to tackle the UK’s only desert, Dungeness, and discover one of Britain’s biggest light railways than with the rugged Mokka X

The sky above us is deep grey and laden with dark, swollen clouds. The landscape is a jumble of broken buildings and the abandoned hulls of old boats. As far as the eye can see, we’re surrounded by vast banks of deep shingle.In the middle of it, aboard our Vauxhall Mokka X 1.6 CDTi Elite Nav, we’re on the Road to Nowhere. That’s its actual name – and one which conveys exactly how it feels. The ‘nowhere’ part, at least; as roads go, though, it’s barely one at all.

BARREN BEAUTY

This is the bleak, wind-battered, ever-changing coastal desert of Dungeness. It’s just 75 miles from the centre of London – but its barren, unsettling beauty couldn’t be any less like the landscapes we associate with Britain. At the southern tip of Kent, it’s one of the world’s largest accumulations of shingle – and on the Road to Nowhere, which isn’t normally open to the public, it’s no place for a car that doesn’t have the Mokka X’s built-in ruggedness.

 

Here, you need to be tough just to park up so you can explore on foot. It doesn’t matter how experienced an off-roader you are – deep shingle is always going to be a challenge for car and driver alike.


But the Mokka X is up for challenges. In fact, Vauxhall’s confident SUV positively thrives on them. Whether it’s the challenge of getting you through town at rush hour or out to the country in the harshest weather, the Mokka X is the ideal companion. Our model is a 4x4 and with intelligent four-wheel drive, descent control and hill start assist in its off-road arsenal, it fairly skips over the surface of testing terrains. Some 4x4s are huge and heavy, but the Mokka X is light and fleet of foot – ideal on a loose, low-traction surface like shingle. On the Road to Nowhere, it’s in its element.

 

The Road to Nowhere was, once, a road to somewhere. Fisherman used it to access the shore – but thanks to a phenomenon called longshore drift, in which stones are rolled along the coast by tides and sea currents until they accumulate into ever-growing headlands, Dungeness is getting bigger all the time. These days, you’d have to venture beyond the end of the road and take your chances with virgin ground to reach the water’s edge.

 

The Mokka X would be the perfect vehicle to take you those last few hundred yards. Again, its blend of light weight and high strength, plus loads of all-wheel-drive traction, means it’s ideally suited to loose, dry surfaces. In this case, though, leaving the road would be very much forbidden – Dungeness is a nature reserve, as well as being private land. So we manoeuvred our Mokka X into a suitable parking spot (if you think a rear-view camera is useful at the supermarket, that’s nothing compared to how reassuring it is to have one when there are old oil drums and bits of machinery lying randomly about the place) and went for a stroll, marvelling at the sheer variety of items on the shingle and wondering how each of them got to be there.

 

We also found ourselves marvelling at how cold you can get in just a few short minutes on an exposed headland by the sea. We didn’t so much return to the Mokka X as get blown back to it – and as we climbed aboard, we were very grateful for its heated seats and heated leather-covered steering wheel.

 

Close up of Mokka X badge

ON THE RAILS

The Road to Nowhere isn’t the only feature of Dungeness that’s been left high and dry by the advancing shoreline. Further into the village, which straggles its way along the single-track road across the shingle, is the Old Lighthouse. It was decommissioned in the 1960s to be replaced by a new one located by the shore.By then, Dungeness had also gained a new feature, and one which adds still further to the charming oddness of the place. A stone’s throw from the Old Lighthouse is the last stop on the line for the celebrated Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway – RH&DR for short.


At almost 14 miles in length, this is one of Britain’s biggest light railways. It was built during the 1920s by John Howey, the heir to a multi-million pound fortune, who dreamed of creating an entire main line on a small scale.Howey was a well-known gentleman racer, and it’s said that one of his reasons for building the railway was to race trains against his friend Louis Zborowski – with whom he regularly jousted at Brooklands aboard his 8.0-litre Hispano Suiza. Tragically, Zborowski died before the railway was completed – but Howey pressed ahead undaunted, and in 1927 the RH&DR carried its first fare-paying passengers.


On the way to Dungeness, we took the Mokka X on a journey following the railway’s route along the coast. Its northernmost station, Hythe, sits next to another feature of the area – the Royal Military Canal, which is basically a very long moat. This was built as a barrier against a threatened invasion by French troops during the Napoleonic Wars – and even as recently as the Second World War, it was seen by Germany as a hindrance in its plans to overwhelm the south of England.

 

Today, the canal survives as a valuable wildlife habitat and long-distance walking route. As you approach the edge of Hythe, however, the canal and railway part company, with the canal heading west and the railway following the coastline towards Dymchurch. Here, you can choose your route. The main trunk road stays close to the beach, often separated from the Channel by nothing more than a high sea wall, but further inland is a minor road which winds its way across the flat, fen-like landscape. It’s open to either side, meaning visibility is unfettered through corner after corner – where the Mokka X’s zestful, sure-footed handling put a huge smile on our faces. Its taut, athletic handling is loads of fun, blending the reassurance of four-wheel drive with the sparkling dynamics of an SUV that truly does put the sport into sport-utility.

 

Mokka X driving on the desert sand

SENSE OF FUN

It’s a comfortable way to cross the landscape, too. We had glided down towards the coast, relaxing in the Mokka X’s ergonomic, sports-style leather seats while the Navi 900 IntelliLink system showed us the way on a crisp 8inch colour touch screen. And now we were able to appreciate the Mokka X’s supple ride on its 18inch silver alloy wheels. It’s a car to draw the sting from everyday life, for sure, but also one to thrill your senses when the time comes to leave your cares behind and enjoy yourself.


With Apple CarPlay™ and Android Auto™, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, we never needed to worry about running out of tunes aboard our Mokka X, either. So it was with a glad heart and a sense of adventure that, rather than staying as close as possible to the railway, we took a detour or three on the lovely, quiet minor roads just inland. The Mokka X has a sense of fun about it that made this so rewarding – it really is a pleasure to steer. Even just changing gear was enjoyable for us, so slick was the manual gearbox mated to our vehicle’s 1.6
CDTi diesel engine.


Eventually, we found our way into Dymchurch, a town whose history is steeped in the smuggling trade and, later, its role in the defence of the south coast. Today, it’s primarily a holiday resort, thanks to its amusement park and excellent sandy beach – as well, of course, as the RH&DR, whose station is just a short way inland. We followed the main road along the sea front from here, through St Mary’s Bay and on towards New Romney – where the railway has its headquarters. Here, Engineering Director Kim Richardson gave us a tour behind the scenes, where the railway’s collection of rolling stock and 15inch-gauge steam locomotives are maintained to supremely high standards. We were treated to the sight of a loco in the final stages of an 18-month recommissioning job, in workshops where traditional skills are passed down through apprenticeships – there’s even a father-and-son team working here.


There’s a pleasing blend of the old and new in the way the railway is run. The engineering, and certainly the atmosphere, hark back to the great days of steam, but computerised control is very much the order of the day, with every possible safety system installed. In this, the railway bears a similarity to the Mokka X, which is equipped with OnStar, your personal connectivity and service assistant, which is never more than the push of a button away, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Just as the train drivers are always in touch with the signal box at new Romney, OnStar means all you have to do is ask. Just knowing such a service is there to fall back on makes driving so much more relaxing.

 

Side profile of the Mokka X on the pebbles of Dungeness

STRANGE BEAUTY

Old and new meet again, too, when the tracks (and roads) finally arrive at Dungeness. Beyond New Romney, we ran parallel to the railway on the beachfront road through Greatstone and Lydd-on-Sea, the Mokka X’s Velvet Red paintwork cutting a welcome dash against the moody backdrop of the sea to our left, before the land around us turned into a sea of gravel and we arrived at the Dungeness Estate.


However often you come here, it’s impossible not to be struck by the strangeness of the place. In Britain, we’re used to everything being laid out neatly and tied up with fences: here, with homes and gardens and assorted items sharing the shingle, it all blends into one. And looming over it all, providing yet another contrast between old and new, is the giant, slab-side presence of Dungeness nuclear power station. Its faceless greyness dominates the horizon, but what’s perhaps most chilling about it is the absolute silence coming from its massive buildings.


Yet even this has its place in the cycle of life. Just offshore is a piece of water known colloquially as The Boil. This is where warm water, fresh from cooling the power station’s reactor, is discharged back into the sea – creating a localised patch of tropical ocean that’s teeming in marine life. Fishermen flock to it – those same fishermen who, if things had been a little difference, might still be able to use the Road to Nowhere to access the shore. If only they had a Vauxhall Mokka X to get them there.

PERFECT COMPANION

This bleak, rugged, wonderful, challenging landscape is all about getting along with the world. And that’s why the Mokka X was the perfect 4x4 to take us there. It’s at home on any road, large or small, rough or smooth – and by the time we arrived at Dungeness, we had already established that its intelligent four-wheel drive was more than capable of keeping it going through deep shingle.


Comfortable, well equipped, exciting to drive and great fun for adventures, the Mokka X really did put a smile on our faces as we explored the landscape surrounding the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. It was the perfect companion every inch of the way – and when you’re surrounded by the harshness of Dungeness, there’s nothing you’d rather be in.

 

Road to Nowhere? Call it what you want. With the Mokka X, every road is a road to somewhere.