The story behind CHALKUP21: An interview with Joanna Jones and Clare Smith


To find out more about the CHALKUP21 trail, Alice Bryant spoke to the co-directors of DAD, Joanna Jones and Clare Smith. 

Why CHALKUP21? What sort of person do you feel will walk the trail?

Joanna: I think that everybody gets that these are some of the most beautiful coastal walkways in England. I mean as you go along this incredible coast – you can see France, you’re right on the top of the Kent Downs; you’re looking out and it’s magical.

And then, almost unnoticed, people have felt that there’s a need for something else – that need has been to have a coffee, to have a rest place, to go to the loo, to shelter out of the rain and to shelter out of the wind. And these structures have been commissioned, and all of them have inspired a special feeling  in the architects to create something special to arrive on a special place on this special route. You don’t pass by the National Trust visitors centre on your way to Tesco – it’s something else, your going about something else and I think the architects aspirations have risen to these ‘strange’ commissions.

Clare: We’ve had a few people saying ‘I want to walk the trail!’. People whose background we don’t know. I don’t know who these people are but there’s something about the fact that this is a trail that has this architectural interest – people really seem to want to walk it. Even though they could have easily just come down to Dover just to walk along the White Cliffs. But it feels different – the fact that the interest in the buildings is combined with the landscape.

It seems to be doing something.

What gave you the inspiration for starting CHALKUP21?

Joanna: It came through a conversation with Steve at Samphire Hoe about these different structures that were being built along the coast. I thought, ‘Ah well if we could bring them all together maybe we could do something with this new heritage that’s being created. Built by organisations in the local area, in each one you can feel that there is an aspiration, as they’re not just run of the mill structures. Everybody has been building something knowing that it’s special, but not  joining up the dots, and I think that all we have done is join up the dots. You’ve got the beautiful ancient trails which have been there – you’ve got the North Downs Way and the England coast path – we haven’t done anything new to the trails as such, but we’ve highlighted different things. Up to now, the things that have been highlighted have been mostly ancient heritage and very often military heritage. All of these structures have been built for peaceful purposes (in the last 18 years).

Clare: Yes and I think that there was a time in DAD’s own development or evolution where we’ve always spoken a lot about the interface between the contemporary and the historical. A re-presentation of Dover’s history.  A lot of projects have brought this contemporary angle onto heritage and looked at that interface and in a sense, it’s not really that different, but it’s the heritage that’s coming. As Charles said, we’re not waiting until its old in order to appreciate it.

Joanna: He says it’s usually 30 years before you can mention buildings [laughs].

Clare: It felt right. Dover’s changing, its garrisons have gone –  it seems the right time to look at the now.

People are usually pretty hard on Dover, it’s usually on lists such as ‘worst places to live’. Do you think that projects like this give people permission to celebrate the contemporary? They don’t just have to look back all the time.

Joanna: This would be our hope. One of the things we found when we first started DAD was that there was a lack of trust in what Dover is now. This project shows that actually organisations in Dover have been achieving and producing wonderful things. But there is a feeling that they can’t quite  celebrate this –  that in some way it is maybe not that special, or not that good. I think that all that CHALKUP21 has done is to say ‘Yes, it is special!’ Linked together this is something very unique and this is the heritage of the future that the partners who commissioned the buildings can and should feel very proud of.

Clare: Meeting the partners, working with the buildings and the spaces is really quite uplifting. People always say of Dover that people don’t work together and that the town is really split, and that’s quite a legacy to overcome, but there are so many people now that want to work together.

What would be the best possible outcome for the future?

Joanna: That after next year, when there isn’t an organisation necessarily nurturing the project that it’s got to the point where it nurtures itself. That would be my best scenario.

Clare: Yes, I kind of hope that someone loves it so much that they look after it. It is a walking trail and an architecture trail, we keep saying it’s like no other – how many walking websites do you see that have drawings and videos and artist responses, rather than people in muddy boots and a kagool? So you hope that CHALKUP21  lives on as a concept and lives on as a website and people know what it is – that people come down because they want to do this specific trail, but also that it goes on inspiring new work.

Joanna: I would hope that it would be inspirational to any coastal buildings that are planned in the future – that they would retain the quality of these first nine buildings and public artworks that make up the CHALKUP21 trail.

Clare: Also that you can have the consciousness that you don’t have to have a cultural trail that is made up of huge major buildings – they don’t  just have to be iconic buildings like the Jerwood or the Turner Contemporary – we can celebrate ordinary architecture, buildings for the everyday.

Joanna: Form follows function. The function of many of these buildings is shelter – there are very extreme weather conditions along the trail – there are certain things that you need – you need a hot drink, you need shelter, you need a moment to rest. A lot of these structures have a simple purpose, but they have been done in an exquisite way.

Clare: also, it’s not your one iconic building – there not  flagship buildings that stand on their own – in a way the trail is a metaphore for the message of the project with the partners – that by working together we’re stronger together. Together, all the structures make a statement in terms of culture and in terms of purpose – together it becomes something that’s bigger. And I quite like that it’s not just this singular thing.

Joanna: I agree, each one wouldn’t create so much interest, but together they make something very special.

The spotlight has very much been on Dover because of the Banksy mural and Brexit and all of the issues surrounding that. When you think of Dover and the surrounding area do you feel like it celebrates that particular landscape in that it nods towards the contemporary, rather than thinking about a fictionalised/fantastic past?

Clare: I think that’s a really interesting question actually. I always like it when the political comes into things in a quite subtle way. In a sense, one can’t escape the political.

Joanna: Yeah, I mean what do you see when you walk along the trail? France! I think Charles Holland says something really nice in his introduction – that certainly in terms of position, its quite clear, that one is connected to Europe.

That’s what I love about Dover – in every century, it’s somehow on the front, it never goes out of the news. ok, Dover is one town that hasn’t grown since the end of the 2nd world war, but even so, it still becomes main news at various times. It is a brand, it’s somewhere where something happens. And why? beacause it’s the closest place to the main land mass of Europe, and that’s political. In a way, we live on the edge and this trail is on the edge. It means you’re living in uncertainty, it means that you have to stay awake. You can’t just go back to some kind of cosy middle-England village where you get annoyed if someone makes a noise after 10 o’clock at night – it’s Dover  – it’s on the edge.

It’s not just Dover of course, the trail goes from Folkestone to Deal – but they’re still on the edge! You can’t get off the edge! When you walk along the trail you are always on the edge!

Has it always been a love for Dover, or a love for art that drew you to these projects – or are they inextricably linked?

Clare: Funnily enough, I’ve never really been settled anywhere as a child. So I’ve had a very ambivalent relationship to place and the process of making place. I’ve often felt that I’ve been in a position where I actually almost don’t have to (engage) because I feel I’m not going to be there for long. And so I suppose it’s not an accident that I’m in a place like Dover, which is, for a lot of people, a place of transit. And I haven’t really left since I arrived! I only came here as I was going to study art as a mature student at UCA. And I stayed because I met Joanna and we started DAD. And so it’s all linked up in a way. That whole issue of what place means is becoming more important to me now.

Joanna: …and slowly it’s been trickling down to me, my relationship to Dover and what it means. In my early childhood, we passed through Dover every summer to the south of France…
After my father’s death my mother was very unhappy, but when she got to Dover she started to open up and her energy changed. In the south of France she was happy and it was easy to be with her, this was the early 50s, and what we found was a world of artists:  many of the post impressionists were there and you would find wonderful paintings in small cafes or restaurants that artists had swapped with the owners. St Tropez was still a fisherman’s town with Bridget Bardot just starting out and artists painting and selling there. And I thought then this is a way you can live and be yourself, in a world  somehow created by and with artists. And somewhere, for me that was connected to Dover. It’s a bit roundabout, but actually, in my own psyche, which is very roundabout, its embedded. And so Dover, in my psyche, became a gateway to another world. It is amazing that I ended up in Dover –  I would never have thought of settling here because it’s a place you arrive and then go somewhere else. But I settled here, and I think its brilliant, I love Dover.

Clare: I was commuting from Luxembourg to UCA, I used to drive as fast as I could through Dover. But then I had X amount of pounds to buy a small house, and one thing leads to another. I met Joanna through the London Biennale and I never imagined I would stay. But here I am. I pinch myself very very often and think ‘God, I never thought I’d do this with my life, I never thought arts would be part of my life, never thought I’d have such great friendships and relationships and be doing so many things. And bringing so many different parts of oneself together in a place. That’s what I’m beginning to think places do for me.

If you prefer, you can listen to the full interview on Soundcloud

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Featured image: Dover Harbour in the distance, Nick Shih-Hsien Hsu