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Orford Ness Peninsula: A dark and brooding place on the Suffolk coast of England

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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.

Sinister echoes

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.

What really happened at Orford Ness

Read more about Suffolk, Aldeborough and the coast on Macfilos


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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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10 COMMENTS

  1. Dennis

    Thank you for some captivating images of Orfordness, they certainly portray the area as “A Dark and Brooding Place”.

    You also mentioned the nearby UFO sightings, so as it is 1 April 2023, may I invite readers to Google; “The Rendlesham Forest Incident”. As a first step readers may like to read the Halt Memorandum shown in the Wikipedia article. In it Colonel Halt vividly describes a UFO landing by the rear gate of the USAF Base adjacent to Rendlesham Forest, early in the morning of 27 December 1980. The subject still continues to elicit various theories. There are many articles listed on Google; some as recent as 2022. Some articles are objective, some are just weird.

    Colonel Halt’s memo was I believe written in good faith and I do not doubt he wrote down what he saw.

    I have a personal interest as the UFO landing site is only four miles away as the crow flies from my home in Suffolk. When I am out and about locally at night, I am always ready with my Sony RX100 camera. Fortunately digital cameras are much more able to catch low light images than what was available to US servicemen back in 1980. Indeed the English Forestry Commission has set up a UFO trail in Rendlesham Forest where the UFO was sighted. Walkers are therefore primed for an unexpected visitation.

    From reading the various articles, what do Macfilos’ readers think what really happened on these dark nights back in December 1980 near the USAF base in Suffolk?

    What would readers recommend as the best digital camera to capture images of UFOs: a Leica Q2 perhaps?

  2. And there’s more! An article on today’s BBC website dedicated to “Britain’s Area 51” It’s a good addition to your article here.

  3. Bravo Dennis. I have really enjoyed your photos and article on Orford Ness. I was there myself a short while ago, catching one of the final ferries of the year over to the peninsular. I was sorry that many of the buildings are now off limits to visitors but do understand the safety risks which make this necessary. Hope to return when the site re-opens next year. John

  4. “Peninsular” is an adjective. The noun is “peninsula”. Orford Ness is a peninsula, and its location could be described as being peninsular. Sorry – this is a surprisingly common mistake that for some reason really winds me up!

    I do like the work, and I would like to go there. You may be interested in a project that I did in another “forbidden” site – the Valley Works in Rhydymwyn, North Wales, which I put together into a book: https://www.blurb.com/books/7897373-rhydymwyn-valley. There are echoes that suggest some similar thinking.

    • Sorry, Alistair. Of course, you are right, and I don’t know how that one got past the sub-editing. But thanks for taking the trouble to write. I also get worked up over this sort of thing. Let’s hope it’s a biennial and not a biannual occurrence. Thanks to your comment, I can put the error right. Mike

  5. Thank you for this insight. I find Orford Ness a fascinating place (and somewhat similar in atmosphere to Dungeness). I’ve visited twice – once in 2001, and again this year on a guided tour with the Airfield Research Group. Now the lighthouse has gone, I was hoping I’d taken some photos of it back in 2001, but all I can find are photos of my then girlfriend with whom I visited the place – no lighthouse in any of them, not even in the background. I made sure on this year’s visit that I captured the pagodas before the elements claim them too.

  6. “Gritty” is a word I would add to Kathy’s “grim”. I was aware of some of these stories but not how they were centered around Orford Ness.

    I think there’s still plenty of relatively modern history still to be unearthed about WWII and how we defended ourselves against invasion.

    Your pictures do a wonderful job of evoking the grittiness of “Never give up” and the efforts that lay behind that exhortation. Thank you!

  7. I have to say, your photos do a wonderful job conveying the grim atmosphere that the text describes! Great shots, well chosen.

    As a ‘bloody colonial’ (my British colleagues description) I would never have known about any of this, were it not for your photo-essay.

  8. Now you have done it! I will start re-reading Richard Hannay book collection. This brooding landscape, beautiful by the way, has pushed me to revisit Richard. It’s a shame in this modern area I don’t think John Buchan would have been allowed to publish. Anyway thanks for a great article that made me think.

  9. It is interesting to read of your adventures in Orford Ness in Suffolk. While trials by Sir Robert Watson-Watt may have taken place at Orford Ness, the main research and development took place at Bawdsey Manor, on the estuary of the River Deben, in Suffolk. Watson-Watt was a senior meteorologist who was charged with developing a radio transmission system of such power that it was capable of disabling and destroying a hostile aircraft approaching the shores of the UK. This was just prior to the outbreak of WWII. He failed because he could not achieve the required power.

    Bawdsey Manor, once the home of Sir Cuthbert Quilter, became the headquarters for the research team and relevant laboratories. The main byproduct of the research was the discovery of RADAR and the development of an overlapping chain of similar stations around the most vulnerable coastline of Britain, which proved crucial to the winning of the Battle of Britain. (Chain Home)

    Rightly, there was great secrecy over these sites; hence the unclear stories that abound. There is a small museum at Bawdsey that describes the early days of radar in East Anglia and the work of Watson-Watt.

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