Spectacular remnants of a dead-end technology, the three concrete “listening ears” at Denge near Dungeness in Kent are the best known of the various early warning acoustic mirrors built along Britain’s coast.
The only way of seeing the Denge sound mirrors close up is during one of the public open days run by the RSPB. There is no public access to the Dungeness mirrors, which are in the middle of a disused gravel pit. Contact the RSPB for the dates of future open days.
A forerunner of radar, the sound mirrors were intended to provide early warning of enemy aeroplanes (or airships) approaching Britain across the English Channel. They did work, but the development of faster aircraft made them less useful, as an incoming aircraft would be within sight by the time it had been located. Increasing ambient noise made the mirrors harder to use successfully, and then radar rendered acoustic detection redundant.
The 200 foot sound mirror
This is the biggy. There is another similar mirror at Maghtab in Malta.
Thanks to Lawrence Mayes
The 30 foot sound mirror
The 30′ dish still has the metal pole which a microphone would have been fixed to. The mirror worked by focusing the noise of aircraft engines onto the microphone, which amplified the sound. The relatively slow aircraft of the time could be heard and located before they came into sight.
The height of the top of the flight of concrete steps down into the chamber below the dish show how far the ground level has fallen since the sound mirror was originally built.
The 20 foot sound mirror
The 20 foot sound mirror at Denge is a bit closer in design to the First World War period acoustic mirror at Kilnsea in East Yorkshire.
Denge sound mirror history
The book Echoes from the Sky by Richard N Scarth is the definitive work on the post-WWI sound mirrors, including the Denge mirrors and the Maltese example. Published by the Hythe Civic Society in 1999, it gives a detailed history of the sound mirrors and associated research projects, and is essential reading if you are interested in the story behind the mirrors. As Scarth has pointed out on the guided walks, his book is based on detailed research and original primary sources, rather than stuff found on the internet.
The book was reprinted in 2014 with additional material from Scarth’s research, and is available from Hythe Civic Society.
July 2003: Britain’s Concrete Ears To Be Saved By English Heritage. English Heritage used a £500 000 grant from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund to help stabilise and preserve the mirrors. Local authorities secured £125 000 to provide visitor interpretation as part of the Historic Fortifications Network.
The foundations were propped up – see Paul Shearsmith’s photo showing how the 20′ mirror had been undermined – and the mirrors put on an island to protect them from the morons who seem to enjoy physically destroying historic structures and covering them in graffiti.
Location and visiting
The mirrors are near Greatstone in Kent. An approximate grid reference is TR 075213.
The only way of getting up close to the Denge sound mirrors is by go to an open day run by the RSPB. It is well worth doing – the mirrors really are impressive close up.
Other than the open days, there is no public access to the Dungeness mirrors, which are in the middle of a disused gravel pit.
Contact the RSPB for the dates of future open days.
It used to be possible for trespassers to gain access to the mirrors, but this is no longer physically possible. The deep lake created by gravel extraction has been extended to completely surround the mirrors, which are now on an island. The only access to the island is via a swing bridge, which is locked in the open position when not being used for guided walks.
The good news is that this should keep out vandals and undesirables!
If you visit the sound mirrors, feel free to add your photographs to the Sound Mirrors pool at Flickr.
The location of the mirrors is described in a number of ways depending where you look. I’ve gone for Denge, as it seems popular, and is used in assorted (quasi-)official sources including historic quotations in the book Echoes from the Sky.
Peter Faulkner of The Greatstone Website say:
For the record, the Sound Mirrors are physically sited in Greatstone on an island on Greatstone Lakes. Dungeness is some three miles way to the south (albeit it is accurate to say that the Mirrors are in the Dungeness National Nature Reserve). The area known as Denge Marsh or Dengemarsh [there is no place actually called Denge] starts about a mile to the south east and continues southwards. Lade is not a place but a name taken from an old Napoleonic fort called Lade Fort located about a mile to the south east of the Mirrors in Lydd-on-Sea.
- The Romney Marsh Countryside Project website has short history of the three sound mirrors.
- Dungeness National Nature Reserve:
At the back of two gravel pits at Lade on an island are the three concrete listening mirrors, built in the 1920’s and 1930’s to detect enemy aircraft as they approached Britain. This is the only site in Britain where all three designs are situated in one place. This early warning system with a range of 20 miles became obsolete by the outbreak of the Second World War, but they have survived and are popular with visitors on pre-arranged guided walks in the summer.
- The Denge sound mirrors were the 20th Century Society’s Building of the Month for October 2003. “Twentieth century lumps of concrete have only recently been recognised, even amongst English Heritage”, said Kendall. Did nobody tell them concrete was cool?!
- Justin Bennett’s website has a scan of a newspaper article on the Lade wall.
Sound mirror music, art and fashion
The Denge sound mirrors have featured in all kinds of art and music projects.
- In June 2001 The Guardian had an article about an acoustic mirror based art proposal (which has not happened):
This project, though, thematically twists the mirrors by 180 degrees, turning what was to be a shield of defence and surveillance into a tool for communicating with the continent. A new sound mirror will be built on Dungeness and a second facing it near Boulogne, probably at Wimereux … So when you stand at a certain point in the mirror, you’ll be able to hear the voice of the person standing by the mirror in France – but only at an exact spot in the mirror. Move just a centimetre and the sound will disappear.
- The band Turin Brakes used pictures of the Denge mirrors on the covers of their CDs Ether Song and Long Distance.
- … as did Blank & Jones on Monument and the video A Forest.
- … while The Prodigy included the mirrors in the video for Invaders Must Die.
- … as did Nicki Minaj with the Freedom video.
- There have also been fashion shoots at the sound mirrors,
- graphic short stories,
- and “rip-roaring tales of comedic supernatural intrigue set in 1930s Britain”.
News and updates about the Denge sound mirrors. The Denge mirrors are the most famous, but there are a number of other early warning acoustic mirrors in Britain. There is another 200 ft mirror at Maghtab in Malta.
If you visit any of the sound mirrors, you can add your photographs to the Sound Mirrors pool at Flickr.