Site_Seal_Gesture Post 9: Fan Bay Sound Mirrors

In these recent posts about the sound mirrors, we are locating the sites within the wider movements and actions that enlace us within them. The things that are seemingly outside of a material understanding of the site, what bounces between these mirrors, physically (us) and imaginatively (the ideas that propel us). Our purpose is to conflate the distance between body and site, to blur the edges and suggest that the site is not located here or there, in this time or that, but is extended and constantly under production. These mirrors do after all capture and concentrate the transience and immateriality of distant sounds, turning murmurs into clear signals, which linger then only in memory. This post looks first at the Fan Bay sound mirrors and then introduces a few of the sites that we will revisit in the coming week, making new interventions upon them.


Our encounter with the Fan Bay sound mirror started out as hearsay, a mention of a chalk mirror during a telephone conversation, recently uncovered in the white cliffs. We confirmed it, two early sound mirrors carved directly into the chalk cliffs and skimmed with concrete. They had been purposefully buried under soil in the 1970s to remove ‘eyesores’ from the landscape. The National Trust recently excavated the site to reveal the mirrors and the tunnels that join them from the hillside to an entrance on the top. We set out to find them, travelling to Fan Bay after the Hythe sound mirrors. We didn’t know if we would be able to find the site or access it if we did, just a rough idea of the patch of coast it was on, close to South Foreland Lighthouse. We headed there, guided by sat nav, taking us down roads that our car was really never meant to traverse. We were squeezed down a narrow track, creaking trees pushing hard on one side of the car, trying to inch us closer to the steep, slippery slope and the river below.


We parked up in the shadow of a row of ash, a lighthouse standing before us and giving us some sense of arrival. We were drawn around its perimeter onto the coastal path, a web of paths really, worn into the grass and occasionally intersecting – a diagram of cliff erosion and the varying degrees of boldness and fear felt by the walkers who come here.


The edge was a fearful thing and it was getting dark. For the most part we kept away from it. We had been walking maybe 20 minutes with no idea if we would find the sound mirrors, when suddenly they were there, beautiful ghostly apparitions facing us from the horizon. Distant but so clear in their form that they stood out clearly, almost audibly ringing. It was getting dark and we knew we wouldn’t be able to reach it that day, but it looked accessible, just a case of dipping down into a natural hollow – itself almost a huge sound mirror, and back up again, rather than taking the coastal path.


So we plotted our route and then retreated to Dover, for a few pints, a bit of sketching and sleep. We returned to Fan Bay the following day. When we arrived, there was a flock of orange dots moving around in front of the mirror, we presumed they were workers. We waited. After 20 minutes they disappeared one by one into a tunnel and a few minutes later, one by one, reappeared at the top of the hill. It looked like they were leaving. We set off along the route we’d plotted. Within 30 minutes we had exchanged the authorised presence of the orange dots with our full size and mildly unauthorised selves, and were standing infront of the shallow white bowl of the first mirror.


It was a beautiful day, clear, relatively warm in memory at least (although the gloves and hats attest otherwise). Here we found chalk and flint and this pure curved surface, white, concrete skimmed upon chalk. The concrete couldn’t quite throw off the character of the chalk beneath, and somehow appeared cleaner and whiter than it probably was. These forms, shallow dishes, seem more like religious monuments or astronomical instruments than instruments of war. They reflect not just the sound of the sky, but also seem to be a material realisation of the moon upon the face of the earth. Each mirror we had encountered had this affect, each in a different way. Hythe was a rough, cratered moon, an earthy surealism, Denge was a sci-fi moon, Fan Bay a Platonic moon, ideal and transcendental, a perfect crescent caught in the afternoon sun.


The processes of making were each different too. Here carving rather than the casting of Denge or Abott’s Cliff. Our two techniques of inversion – casting and carving – were now reflected in our sound mirror sites – the concrete sound mirrors, shuttered and poured, the carved chalk of Fan Bay, skimmed with concrete and polished. Between the two was Hythe, a hybrid of iron and concrete, an armature upon which concrete was deposited, building up a thin skin which would crumble and fade much more readily than the solid cast forms or the absences of excavated materials. Somehow Hythe had felt more like a dwelling, not just because it was the most vessel like, a wattle and daub cocoon, but perhaps more so because it was symbiotic, needing an occupant in order to survive.

So here, like at Hoo, we had a compass – lines were radiating out between all our sites, from those in South West China, to those on the South West coast of England, and between our practices, the materials we use, the tools and gestures that we employ.

Fan Bay introduced chalk into our material vocabulary and cemented flint as an ancillary actor. Chalk is a form of limestone, the calcite shells of minute marine organisms, and formed in the Cretaceous period, 142 to 65 million years ago. It often contains nodules of chert and flint. It can be ground into dust and used as a pigment or it can be used to make lime and cement. It is used in ceramics and cosmetics, and compressed into sticks for writing on blackboards. Chalk brings vastly differing material and temporal scales together – from the microscopic calcite shells from which it is made, to the vast beds of chalk that are exposed at the jagged edge of the coast. Similarly, from the geological time of tens of millions of years to the moment it takes to take a chunk and draw a circle on the floor. We will respond to these properties too, in the coming posts.



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These two materials drew together a number of encounters, most notably clambering up the hillside to Fan Bay, walking along the beach at St Margaret’s Bay and the gravel extraction plant at Cliffe Fort and back to London with bags of chalk rocks.  Later we were invited to participate in the Beaches Symposium in Whistable, Kent, a fantastic residential event run by Anne Bottomley from the University of Kent Law School. Here we encountered more chalk.

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The chalk cliffs are pitted with defensive posts, tunnels and shelters along too with smuggling tunnels. We plan to access this one at St Margaret’s Bay in the coming weeks, when the tide is out. There is a rope already attached, it can just about be made out in the photo.


We plan to return to the cliffs near Margate to make interventions in the chalk there (although we are not the first)..

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One thought on “Site_Seal_Gesture Post 9: Fan Bay Sound Mirrors

  1. The sound mirrors and tunnels beneath are open to the public – so no need to skulk at all. You can even book a tour of the whole underground complex – which is very worthwhile. If you really want to understand the chalk, you have to be inside it, with the fossils. The National Trust excavated the sound mirrors only very recently, but had believed them to be still in situ for a number of years, and local NT staff have been very pro-active in both researching and promoting the site. I was involved in the project in the early days, before the excavation of the sound mirrors, but spent ‘some time’ beneath the white cliffs. There really isn’t anything quite like being 50ft beneath the surface, surrounded by dead men’s graffiti, and fossils dating back millions of years, to give you a perspective on life…

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