Reculver Towers - PAYE
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Reculver Towers

Reculver Towers

The site at Reculver is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and is now under the management of English Heritage.

Once an important strategic location at the head of the Wantsum Channel (which used to separate the Isle of Thanet from the mainland of Kent), a Roman settlement was established at Reculver almost a mile from the sea between 100 and 200 AD.

During the 3rd Century it became a site for one of the earliest Roman forts, built as protection against the Saxon raids. These forts formed part of a defensive network on both sides of the English Channel which ran between Brancaster in Norfolk and Portchester in Hampshire – commonly known as The Saxon Shore Forts.

The most distinctive features of Saxon Shore forts were their defences, comprised of large stone walls, normally backed by an inner mound of earth. The structure was built in a square formation with high sided walls which were punctuated by projecting bastions. Most were surrounded by ditches adding an additional layer of defence.

The Notitia Dignitatum (Latin for “The List of Offices”) is a document of the late Roman Empire that details the administrative organization of the Eastern and Western Empires. It listed nine forts under the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore. Three of these forts were constructed early in the 3rd Century AD  and included Brancaster, Caister and Reculver – all of these conformed to the traditional Roman military design (see figure 1). The reminder were constructed in the latter part of the 3rd Century and were defined by thicker/taller walls, semi-circular bastions and irregular layouts. The forts of the latter group were: Bradwell, Burgh, Dover, Lympne, Pevensey, Portchester and Richborough.

See image of saxon fort map

The site at Reculver later became the location of an Anglo-Saxon monastery before being remodelled in the 12th  Century as the parish church. This remained in use until coastal erosion forced its abandonment in 1805, and the medieval church was partly demolished, when much of the stone was reused to construct a new church on higher ground at Hillborough. The tall towers were retained however and now hold an imposing position over the Kentish skyline (being known locally as the Twin Sisters). They serve to act as a navigational aid for mariners, when at sea.

Reculver was originally built faced with squared greensand blocks, but these have almost all but disappeared, as the stone was appropriated to be used as a building material elsewhere. What remains, is the Southern half of the Roman fort, which survives as ruined walls and earthworks. The core of the enclosing wall is mainly flint bound in lime mortar and in parts survives to a height of almost 3 metres.

The Saxon Shore forts are of particular significance to our understanding of the period and all examples are considered to be of national importance. Despite some damage caused by coastal erosion, Reculvers Hill fort survives comparatively well and part excavation has shown that the monument contains important archaeological and environmental evidence.

PAYE started work in June 2020, with Phase I works running over a programmed 26 weeks.

The works comprised of both preventative conservation and structural repairs. Vegetation had taken hold of the boundary wall ruin and in places deep root systems were penetrate the masonry and disrupting the construction. Our team therefore needed to take a cautious approach to remove the plants encroaching over the masonry, ensuring they did not destabilise the material beneath. As with previous works to both Pevensey and Porchester Castles, In order to prevent the monument changing visually, English Heritage proposed that in any location where the removal of root systems cause the destabilisation of more than 4 stones, then we are to stop and reflect as a team how best to proceed. This project then required a tentative approach to repair using injection grouting, lime mortar consolidation and localised re-bedding and repointing of the stone.

As with all monuments of considerable age, inevitably repairs had been completed over the centuries, with some attempts at restoration being rather over-zealous. Many of these interventions are still in place and as can be expected, they remain solid, showing little or no sign of deterioration. They are sometimes however responsible for the exacerbated breakdown of adjacent material, bound by softer lime mortars and so where it is possible to remove these without disruptive intervention, they were replaced. Conversely, where stable, they were retained rather than risk greater damage.

Phase II is proposed for April 2021 and will see works concentrate on the main ruin, with consolidation of some rather friable masonry.

Author: Spencer Hall ACR IHBC MCIOB PGDip HBC
Conservation Consultant | PAYE