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Conservation cliffhanger

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Dover's Grand Shaft is the focus of a major restoration project. George Demetri reports

Painstaking architectural detective-work, the replication of original brick types, and traditional bricklaying skills have gone into the reconstruction of a unique nineteenth century military monument in Kent

The very real threat of a French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars led to the strengthening of English coastal defences, particularly along the Kent coast. On Dover's Western Heights, an array of moats, ditches, bastions, batteries and forts was constructed. And in order to facilitate the rapid movement of troops from their cliff-top barracks down to the harbour, the Grand Shaft was sunk into the cliff between 1806 and 1809.

Today, the inattentive visitor can climb the staircase of the 43m-deep shaft oblivious to the fact that this mini marvel of engineering contains not one, but three intertwined spiral staircases, designed to triple the shaft's troop-carrying capacity in times of emergency. But although the feared invasion never came, the Grand Shaft was still put to good use by soldiers strolling to and from the bars and brothels of the pier district. In subsequent years, the class-conscious Victorian army would use the triple staircase to segregate the rank and file into 'officers and their ladies', 'sergeants and their wives', and 'soldiers and their women'.

There have been associated buildings near the foot of the shaft ever since it was completed. The guard room and gate house would not only control access to and from the shaft, but provide a temporary gaol for unruly, drunken soldiers. Unfortunately, the original buildings fell into disrepair and were eventually demolished in 1965.


The decision to reconstruct the 1890s gatehouse complex was part of an initiative by IMPACT (the Kent County Council-led urban regeneration partnership) with Dover District Council. Both wanted to improve the presence of the Grand Shaft, whose location had recently been given further prominence by the extension of the A20 from Folkestone. However, funding, despite coming from both councils and the EU, was only sufficient for reconstructing the gatehouse; the shaft and its three staircases must wait for a future refurbishment.


Reconstruction of the gatehouse was made difficult by the paucity of documentary evidence, which consisted primarily of a few artists' impressions and other drawings held by Dover Museum and English Heritage. Other sources included the existing low brick walls and the original foundations. The evidence indicated that the original gatehouse of 1809 - which featured a Gothic arch - was replaced in the 1890s by a building with two flatter arches. Because of the uncertainties regarding the evidence for the original, it was decided to reconstruct the later two-arch design.

The structures remaining on the Western Heights provided an indication of the brick and mortar used and so helped locate the Sittingbourne-based brick manufacturer of the original bricks. Once again the company was called upon to make new hand-made, metric and imperial-sized facing bricks for the reconstruction.

Conservation policy

Completed by 1996, the new single-storey gatehouse serves as the ticket office to the monument and has been built on the original foundations of the old guard room and gateway. Apart from the scale of the 5m-high gatehouse and its buff-coloured London Stock brickwork which stands in stark contrast against the gigantic cliff looming behind, the main distinguishing features are the two three-centre arches on the front elevation. Also prominent is the continuous three-course corbel which forms an imposing cornice below the parapet. All brickwork and arch detailing was by Peter Wells, who also detailed the richly modelled brickwork of the Castle Mall development in Norwich, featured in Brick Bulletin Autumn 1995.

The Grand Shaft gatehouse with its English-bonded solid brickwork is located behind the blind arch which is in sharp contrast to the deep, barrel-vault soffit of the entrance arch. Because of the different radii in a three-point arch, voussoirs vary in size and shape, depending on their position. To maintain parallel mortar joints and a more elegant finish, tapered bricks were used, some of which narrow to just 20mm as the intrados radius decreases near the springing point, an area characterised by some pretty fine, sharp cutting. Each voussoir was therefore purpose- made and the arch assembled on pallets prior to erection to ensure an accurate fit. A lime and sharp-sand mortar was used. The blind arch is similar, although it comprises a double arch above a blind opening.

Extending either side of the gatehouse are boundary brick walls which define the approach to the Grand Shaft and create a forecourt to the gatehouse. Piers, which at first look as if they are designed to buttress the freestanding walls, are clustered in various positions. Yet in addition to a structural role, they are, more importantly, intended to indicate the arrangement of the original partitions.

What at first sight seems an irregular construction soon reveals its logic: rather than demolish what was left of the existing nineteenth century boundary brick walls, they have been extended vertically by the addition of new, contrasting, buff-coloured brickwork. This was done not for economy - and certainly not for aesthetics - but stems from one of the basic tenets of modern conservation practice: that repairs to monuments should be clearly discernible and not manipulated to appear a part of the original fabric. In this way, the construction can be read to provide a clear record to future generations of the work carried out. To paraphrase John Ruskin, it is putting protection in place of restoration, expressing clearly without any pretence or dishonesty, and resisting the temptation to tamper with the existing fabric.

Its crafstmanship won an award for the use of brick in the Downland Prize for Architects. The Prize was run by the RIBA South East and Southern Regions for a building project under £250,000 which best demonstrates the value of using the skills of an architect in design and execution.

It is a shame that the nineteenth century buildings originally on the site no longer exist - time and the folly of men can be blamed for their demise. Yet in their place is a convincing replica which makes a fitting introduction to a truly unique military monument, a monument which, hopefully, will itself survive be the subject of a future conservation programme.


Dover District Council


(Research & Design)

Roger Joyce Associates

(Site co-ordination)

John Dawson, IMPACT

Structural Engineer

Alan Baxter & Associates

Main Contractor

Jenner (Contractors) Ltd

Brickwork and arch detailing

Peter Wells

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