Some years ago I saw a photo of some distinctive concrete structures in a Orford tourist leaflet and was captivated by their brooding outlines against the horizon. I just had to visit. There is just something about this place that keeps calling me back…
So, on an early morning last June, I stepped aboard the small ferryboat Octavia to make the short trip over the River Ore to the National Trust site of Orford Ness in Suffolk.
This remarkable place steeped in military history and now an internationally important nature refuge for wildlife, continues to linger on in my memory and my trips there have become a form of annual pilgrimage when holidaying in the town of Southwold just up the coast.
This is my third visit and no matter how often I go and in whatever weather, the site reveals something different. Given that Orford Ness is the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe, its changing form and dynamic landscape is one that is subject to constant evolution due to tidal forces, wave action and climatic factors.
Together with the nearby Havergate Island which is owned and managed by the RSPB, Orford Ness is designated a Natural Nature Reserve (NNR) and forms part of the Ore Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest(SSSI).
It also has a host of other designations for the conservation and management of the site and to this end only a few visitors are allowed to make the crossing each day in order to minimise the impact on the fragile environment. If you do get the chance to visit you will need a strong pair of shoes and don’t forget to take all your supplies with you as once on the Ness the only amenities are a wardens hut and a toilet block!
Due to the environmental habitats on the site and areas set aside for birds in the breeding season, there are well marked routes which must be used.
Also due to the sites military past, there are clear warning signs not to stray from the designated routes as whilst the area has been surface cleared there is still the chance that unexploded ordnance may work its way to the surface!
The fact that the number of visitors are limited provides a unique opportunity to experience the feeling of remoteness and isolation that are for me the key to its atmosphere. It is a place that you feel holds many secrets…and indeed it does!
The fragile nature of the site now is in stark contrast to its former military uses. Indeed it is in part due to its use as a secret MoD test site from 1913 until the mid-1980s that visitors are able to enjoy the Ness as the unspoilt wilderness it is today.
A large area of land was initially purchased by the War Department in 1913 for an airfield which by 1915 was used by the Central Flying School for various research work into aerial warfare, including testing new aircraft and experiments on bomb and machine gun sights. It is hard to believe today that in 1918 over 600 staff lived and worked on the site.
Remains of the perimeter fence
The iconic Pagodas built in 1960 and used for vibration testing
The concrete Pagodas were the structures that first drew me here and although it is not possible to visit these buildings for safety reasons (although sometimes guided tours are held), they are still an omnipresent part of the landscape.
They are part of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment or AWRE commissioned during the Cold War period. Orford Ness was one of the few sites in the UK where purpose built facilities were created for the testing of the component parts of nuclear weapons.
Amongst the works undertaken were the recording of the flight of the atomic bomb and monitoring its electronics during flight. Tests were designed to mimic the rigours to which the bomb might be subjected prior to detonation and the facilities on the Ness included buildings to test vibration, temperature extremes, G force and shock waves. Although no nuclear material was believed to be present, high explosives were used and the tests were carried out remotely.
An example of the atomic bomb on display in the information centre
One of the Laboratories built in 1956 one of six cells used for mechanical and vibration testing of large weapons such as Blue Danube, Britain’s first atomic bomb
There are many remains of the AWRE buildings scattered across the site today some of which have been turned over to visitor interpretation centres and towers to look out across the landscape.
The Black Beacon now an interpretation centre
The Police Tower
Bomb Ballistics building with viewing platform
View towards the former top secret establishment known as Cobra Mist
…view towards the lighthouse from the Bomb Ballistics Building
From the Bomb Ballistics Building, a walk along a track that has been in use for over 200 hundred years brings you to the lighthouse. The sandy grassland habitat along the track is rich in rare coastal plants, lichens and mosses.
Vibrant red Salicornia lines the track
The lighthouse built in 1792 was owned until recently by Trinity House. It has not had a live in lighthouse keeper for years and was operated automatically from Harwich. A decision was taken in 2010 to turn off its light as the Southwold lighthouse had been fitted with wider ranging lights to protect this area of the Suffolk coast.
Its light was finally turned off in June last year.
The constant erosion of the coastline and the mobility of the shingle bank has led to the lighthouse becoming increasingly left to the mercy of the ravages of the North Sea and it is thought that it has not many more years left until it crumbles beneath the waves.
In the last 20 years approximately 80 metres of shingle spit has been lost from in front of the lighthouse and this winter alone almost four metres has been eroded. Today the base of the lighthouse is only 11 metres from the beach. Given the fragile nature of the shingle bank it is difficult to attempt to shore it up to prevent further erosion so nature will perhaps be left to take its course…
Will it still be there when I next visit?
Nearby the lighthouse the first submarine telegraph cable to Holland was laid in 1853. The cable laying ship arrived at Schevningen some 34 hours later having covered the 115 mile distance!
The shingle bank shelves deeply here and the fast offshore currents especially in winter storms make this a dynamic and ever shifting area. Despite this the shingle provides a home to a wide variety of plants and as visitors are limited and must use way marked paths, many grow happily undisturbed.
Yellow horned poppy is well adapted to surviving the salt laden air and exposed sites
Sea campion cling to the top of the shingle ridges
Many of the former derelict military buildings provide shelter and homes to wildlife and plants happily grow up through the rusting metal and concrete.
Campions and thrift in the barbed wire
Red Valerian clumps readily through the shingle
Wildlife too enjoys a sanctuary in this undisturbed landscape. Barn Owls nest in a number of the disused buildings, Peregrine Falcons can be seen perched on the transmitters at the Cobra Mist site in spring or late autumn and Marsh Harriers nest in the reed marsh near the airfield site. Wheatears and Ringed Plovers nest near the Black Beacon.
Many wading birds can be seen on the marshes such as Avocets, Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Curlews and Spoonbills. Other habitats are provided by brackish lagoons which are mostly man made structures known as “borrow pits” from which clay was “borrowed” to construct and repair flood defence walls these also support communities of animals and plants.
Stoats and Weasels can be seen frolicking around the old fuel pump
The Ness has a colony of wild brown hares which seem much larger than their cousins back over the water!
Orford Ness to me is an other worldly and unforgettable place where you are aware that you are “just visiting” for the day before you catch the last boat back to Orford Quay.
It is a landscape of contrasts to which words do not easily begin do justice. It is both bleak and beautiful, a place full of secrets and ghosts of the past, it is peaceful yet at the same time a hostile environment. In this day and age it is good to know that places such as Orford Ness still exist. A wilderness on Suffolk’s doorstep!