Orford Ness, on the Suffolk coast, is the epitome of a dynamic landscape. It’s described as Europe’s largest vegetated shingle spit, but the shingle is only the half of it. The rest of it comprises mudflats, salt marshes, tidal rivers, and lagoons. Without the shingle, there would be nothing but sea. And without the sea, there would be no spit. The action of storm waves, throwing shingle up over the beach crest, formed the ridges and furrows of the spit. The Ness has no determinate size — it waxes and wanes with the tides and the winds..
Until the twentieth century, Orford Ness was an obscure place on the map, a haunt of sheep, cattle, herdsmen, and smugglers. Then in 1913, the War Department purchased the Ness and for the next seventy years it was a centre of top secret military research. The early experiments were concerned with aeroplanes and aerial bombing. In the 1930s and 1940s, the focus switched to radio and radar, and then the Atomic Age arrived in the 1950s.
The UK’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment built several facilities on the Ness to test its atom bombs. These tests never involved the fissile material that the triggers the nuclear reaction — those ‘live’ tests were carried in isolated regions of Australia. The AWRE tests on Orford Ness were concerned with the missiles that would carry the atomic payload. Even without the nuclear material, it was dangerous work.
The military occupation ended in 1993, when the Ministry of Defence sold Orford Ness to the National Trust. It’s now a nature reserve with a material legacy of military research buildings, many of them decaying, and unexploded ordnance. There’s a special kind of eeriness associated with these remnants of twentieth century warfare, especially the atomic ones. They remind us of how close humanity has come to extinction in the recent past. And their vacancy does not signal the end of that destructive research but simply its portage to new remote secret places.
I chatted to one of the National Trust rangers on my visit. He grew up in the village of Orford, separated from the Ness by a narrow band of water. This was during the latter years of the MOD’s ownership. He recalled watching the comings and goings of the military boats, and being intensely curious about what they were up to. Just the kind of experience to fire a young person’s imagination.
One of my favourite sights of the day was a hare I saw loping across the shingle. I took it as a hopeful sign amid the eeriness, amid the remnants of experimental destruction.