Barbara Davidson takes a look behind the doors of a former prison which has been transformed into a magical Christmas grotto in the heart of the Lanes in Brighton.

TURNING a 19th Century prison into a fairy tale Santa's grotto sounds an impossible task.

Yet one glance at the picturesque facade, big windows and traditional roof and chimney of The House of Correction and it is not hard to understand why some have always thought of it as Brighton's very own Gingerbread House.

The Grade II listed building was constructed in 1835 and, until recently, had been used for storage by its owners and next-door neighbours, Donatello restaurant.

It has now metamorphosed into a life-size fairy tale cottage with polystyrene gingerbread men, liquorice sweets and candy sticks.

The eye-catching exterior is the latest work of art by Newhaven firm Expanded Polystyrene Supplies (EPS), which has worked on the Star Wars movies and the Millennium Dome.

Managing director Colin Thomas said: "We do a lot of display work for companies and were asked if we could manufacture the figures, sweets and candy for the grotto in polystyrene.

"It's something I enjoyed getting involved in and we are supporting a very good charity."

The Argus Appeal co-ordinator Elsa Gillio came up with the idea for a dream house covered in candy. Rough artists impressions were made of her ideas and EPS took it from there.

They did not charge a penny for their services.

Mr Thomas said: "We designed it and decided where the lettering and the gingerbread men and so on would go.

"We have made two gingerbread men, one gingerbread lady, candy sticks in various sizes and an assortment of sweets.

"We have been able to do the work alongside our other projects. It has taken us about a week in man hours."

Mr Thomas started up the company under the name Pabrico Panels in a garage in Newhaven 33 years ago.

It now employs nine staff at its premises on Denton Island, Newhaven.

The firm worked on scenery for the first Star Wars film more than 20 years ago and provided the ice Cave set for The Empire Strikes Back.

In the last two years, EPS has also made the four-metre high musical notes on the Royal Opera House in London and been involved in providing polystyrene for a bridge at the Millennium Dome.

The interior of The Gingerbread House has been divided into three areas: The Forest, The Workshop and The Cave.

Children enter a night-time winter forest with twinkling lights, glittery snow trees and sparkling snowmen.

Behind a silver curtain, elves are busy in their workshop making presents for Santa in his crystal ice cave.

A passageway of snow-flakes and icicles leads back into the hustle and bustle of the streets outside.

Employees from decor firm Decoram have been working for weeks to transform the building's interior.

The company worked for free on the grotto and employee Mandie Brame said: "We have been working hard but it is for a good cause and has been a lot of fun. I'm sure the children will love it."

A team from Rottingdean Drama Society helped with the creation of the elves' workshop while music comes courtesy of students from Brighton Music Service.

Flooring has been provided by Gregstone Carpets, the interior and exterior lighting by Seeboard and security by Languard Alarms.

The City Centre Forum has paid for a horse-drawn carriage so Santa can arrive in style on Saturday.

Students at City College Brighton and Hove are responsible for much of the painting and all the internal carpentry work inside the grotto.

Help has also been provided by Brighton and Hove City Council.

A £800 rocking horse is set to make one child's Christmas very special after it was donated by Brighton shop Earthly Artifacts.

Every child who visits the grotto will receive a free raffle ticket and the chance to win the horse on Christmas Eve.

The finishing touches were made to the house last weekend when firefighters from Preston Circus fire station hoisted a reindeer on to the roof to the cheers of dozens of onlookers.

A special preview was held last night for sponsors, special guests and their children.