A shingle spit on the Suffolk coast, stretching ten miles from Aldeburgh to Orford, is now an important focus for nature conservation. But Orford Ness is also the former home to something altogether much more sinister.
This unpopulated peninsula is linked to the coast only at Aldeburgh and accessible by boat only from Orford Quay and then only once or twice a year.
Orford Ness environment
The process of longshore drift has created ridges (swales) which likely mark a previous shoreline. The shingle does not allow plants to take root for long, but is home to species including sea kale, sea pea, red valerian and the yellow horned poppy. Fauna on Orford Ness includes hare and Chinese Water Deer along with birds such as Avocets, Lapwings and Redshank.
As peaceful as it now is, the unusual peninsula is the former home of secret military testing which spanned two words wars and, indeed, the Cold War period.
A century of war on Orford Ness
As far back as 1929, the War Department (MOD) was conducting radio navigation experiments on the Orford Ness peninsula which led directly to what know as radar. It was at Orford Ness that Robert Watson-Watt and his team developed the Chain Home Radar System which was used to great effect during the Battle of Britain.
Between 1938 and 1959, trials to assess aircraft vulnerability were undertaken at Orford Ness in order to improve our protection. It is said that this included shooting at an aircraft with a .303 rifle. This seems a somewhat tall order and would not be out of place in Spike Milligan’s war memoirs.
The AWRE (Atomic Weapons Research Establishment) set up a base on the site which was to be developed for the environmental (destructive) testing of components and systems. Most of the buildings from this period remain, including the distinctive pagodas. Blue Danube, Britains first atomic bomb, was exposed at Orford Ness to imitate the extreme conditions to which the weapon could be subject before detonation.
Orford Ness and UFOs, Nazis
There are many stories surrounding Orford Ness, including UFOs (The Rendlesham Forest sightings of 1980 implicated the Trinity Lighthouse) and a thwarted Nazi invasion. This was officially denied and supported by subsequent documents released in 1993. Until July 2020 the Orford Lighthouse (later Trinity Lighthouse) built in 1792, was in service but had to be dismantled due to the encroaching sea.
From 1967 until 1985 bomb disposal teams worked to clear the site of unexploded ordnance, but it is still considered to be unsafe to wander from the designated routes. The National Trust acquired the site in 1993 and first opened it to visitors in 1995.
The spit is also home to Cobra Mist from where the BBC World Service broadcast until fairly recently. From 1968 until 1973, Cobra Mist was the operational name of a joint UK and USA experiment into over-the horizon radio. Today it remains used only by pirate radio station Radio Caroline, having been acquired from the MOD by Cobra Mist Limited.
Guided tours of Orford Ness
National Trust guided trips, using safe paths as some ordnance may remain, allow a close inspection of the buildings and remaining infrastructure. Recently it has been claimed that some Napalm was unearthed.
I have visited Orford Ness on three occasions in an attempt to record pictorially the sinister buildings and decaying technology. While access to the armoury remains, it is no longer possible to get into the laboratories or pagodas because of safety concerns.
Since this area is directly on the coast and open to the elements, much decay is now evident in the remaining equipment and technology; but this offers the opportunity to record textures and colours along with some strong design elements.
With the big skies, the buildings are all the more sinister and offer many opportunities on days when the skies are threatening. The pagodas may be recorded in relief to add to the atmosphere or in detail to show the shingle roof.
The armoury and laboratories are best shown with the shingle abutted to the walls to negate the effects of an explosion. This is also the case with the pagoda roofs which are in fact trays piled high with shingle.
A visit to Orford Ness requires planning, advance ticket purchase and some dedication, but the area remains one of the most evocative and sinister echoes of a century of conflict. You can find full details of how to get to Orford Ness from the National Trust site.
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This article first appeared in a slightly different form in the December 2022 issue of TLS Magazine. Why not join The Leica Society to enjoy expanding your knowledge of the marque and mix with prominent Leica experts? Find full details here.
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