The Listening Ears

August 30 – Dungeness.

Ever since I read about the sound mirrors at Dungeness I have wanted to go and see them. Today I finally got out there. Dungeness is 25 miles from St Leonards, so it is not as if it is miles away and difficult to get to, as always, no excuses for not going before.

I took the coast road from Pett to Winchelsea so I could take a quick look at Pett Level. There are the remains of an ancient dead forest at the low tide line and I have been interested in seeing them. It is not low tide now, but I want to at least see where to go. I took a couple of photos as I was here.

Dungeness and its nuclear power station is just up the coast, though it looks a world away from here.

The Denge sound mirrors were the third in a series of experiments using sound to create an early warning system in times of war. The first two attempts; an in ground system and ‘sound trumpets’ were developed after the first world war, neither were particularly successful and development of both was soon stopped.

Built between 1928 and 1930 the ‘listening ears’ were designed to pick up the sound of approaching enemy aircraft and reflect it back into a microphone that was connected to operators located elsewhere. The three variations of sound mirror are here; a 30ft and a 20ft circular mirror and a 200ft by 26ft curved wall. The smallest being built first. They were of limited success, easily detecting the slow moving aircraft that were common before they were built, but as technology moved on and aircraft got faster their use faded. Eventually they were replaced by new the fangled radar technology and development was abandoned in 1939. There are a couple of other sound mirrors further up the Kent coast near Hythe.

The sound mirrors are to be found behind the village of Greatstone, a couple of miles up the road from Dungeness itself. They are located on an island in a small lake that forms part of a RSPB (Royal Society for Protection of Birds) reserve. I was planning on walking around the lake; getting a bit of exercise as well as seeing things from different perspectives, which is something I like to do. It was not going to be easy, or ultimately even achievable.

The lake is a couple of hundred metres wide and a kilometre or so long. The first ‘side’ was not too bad, mainly pebbles, which is a pain to walk on, but at least you can walk on them. I got my first glance of the sound mirrors and they are pretty cool.

As I made my way around the back of the lake the going got tougher with the pebbled ground overgrown with grasses, scrubby bushes, brambles and thistle. I was beating an ever more erratic path around the denser patches of the scratching prickly scrub. I was wearing long trousers but was not particularly prepared for this kind of scrub and I could feel the brambles catching my skin through the cotton. I was mostly enjoying the walk as doing something with even a mild hint of adventure was a great change from the mundanity of my day to day.

I managed to get to the back of the sound mirrors, but stupidly lost my sunglasses when I was taking photos. At least they were only the cheap plastic ones I leave in the car, so not a financial loss, but annoying all the same. I need to be more careful with things. I tried to find them once I realised they were gone, but I could not find the exact location I stood to take the photos.

I tried to carry on round the lake and made it a bit further along before the scrub just got too dense and too tall to easily push through and I could not see a clear path ahead. With no way around without going way back and then out into the farmland, I reluctantly turned back. It was easier going back through the paths I had made as I pushed through on the way in.

Once back, passed where I had started and at the front of the lake I made my way to the causeway that goes quite close to the mirrors. On special days (pre-Covid) there are organised tours that cross to the island; but realistically this was close enough to see, especially with the 70-200mm lens. It would have been good to have been able to stand in front of the big mirror and see if I could hear anything reflected back. Unlike the far side of the lake there were a few people at the viewing point, I guess not everyone is as adventurous, or stupid as I am.

I had also packed the Polaroid.

On my slow stroll back to the car I stood on some dog poo; fortunately I was still by the lake so was able to wash it all off, walking back with a wet foot was less fun, but better than stinking out the car. I was hoping there was not going to be a third, minor, misfortune today. Though I guess I could say the 90 minutes it took to drive the 25 miles back home was not exactly fortunate!

I love that these listening ears and their cousins in Hythe are still standing, and that there is real interest in preserving these wonderful reminders of our inquisitive nature; and our ability (for some people at least) to learn from apparent failure.