Orford Ness

30 July 2011

Orford Ness is a rather unusual place - a large shingle spit some 16 kilometres long, combining wild nature with remains, mostly decaying of 20th century military usage. It is almost an island, lying between the River Alde/Ore and the sea, and is one of the most important shingle features in Europe and thus a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area, a candidate Special Area for Conservation, a Ramsar site and a National Nature Reserve. It's historic military significance results in is being classified as nationally important under English Heritage's Monuments Protection Programme. Definitely somewhere worth a visit.

Much of the site is owned by the National Trust, and is accessible only by boat from Orford during the mornings of certain days of the year.

So, having crossed the River Ore by the little National Trust ferry, a walk across part of the site has already started to show the mixture of nature and human remains. We've crossed the airfield site on which two airfields were build from 1913; the Armament Experimental Flight of the Central Flying School transferred here in 1915, and research work was carried out including new aircraft, parachutes, bomb and machine-gun sights, aerial combat tactics, camouflage and navigation methods. By the end of World War I over 600 people lived and worked here. This site here is the remains of a 100-foot span hanger to house twin-engined craft.

Inside the information hut nearby is a range of displays about the history of Orford Ness. The site was used for development of Britain's nuclear bombs, including this member of the WE177 family of parachute retarted freefall nuclear weapons. It was designed to have a range of delivery and fusing options and eventually replaced Yellow Sun Mark 2 and Red Beard weapons. This 'A' variant could be delivered by most UK naval helicopters between 1971 and 1991. The last of the WE177 family were withdrawn in 1998.

Approaching the bailey bridge across Stony Ditch. Bridges have been here since the 17th century, but this one was erected in 2 days in 1995. Ahead you can see the lighthouse and other structures.

Looking upstream to the Cobra Mist site. Between the late 1960s and 1973, the large building housed System 441A, an over-the-horizon backscatter radar system. The building now houses transmitters for the BBC World Service.

As we walk towards the Bomb Balistics Building, we cross remains of a 60cm-gauge railway built in World War I to carry stores, equipment and personnel around the site. On a number of occasions the railway was extended and used to carry shingle for flood defence work, but was abandoned in 1971

Mark, Debbie, Roger and Ben climbing to the first floor of the Bomb Ballistics Building. Built in 1933 it was the nerve centre of the experimental bombing range, used to monitor bombs and improve their aerodynamics and aiming. Equipment was improved into the 1950s to help in the development of the atomic bomb, dropped from 40,000 feet and landing in the water to the north of the lighthouse.

View from the Bomb Ballistics Building shows the remains of some of the monitoring equipment.

The ridges and swales of the vegetated shingle are formed by the action of the sea moving material along the shore, with each ridge being the position of an ancient shoreline. Large stones are in the swales and smaller ones on the tops of the ridges; the smaller stones provide smaller gaps which trap organic material and thus favour vegetation.

The remains of a timing beacon array from c. 1943. The central round structure held a poweful lamp. A shutter rotating around the lamp allowed light to shine on the mirrors on each of the surrounding concrete blocks. A photograph taken by the aeroplane at the moment of bomb release showed a particular pattern of lights which could later be used to fix the time of release very precisely.

Keeping to the visitor route, we head briefly towards the Black Beacon before turning left onto the lighthouse track.

Heading for the lighthouse

Next to the lighthouse is the Coastguard Watch House from the mid 19th century, finally abandoned in the 1960s (though not by the stock doves and wood pigeons).

The lighthouse, at the base of which we had an early lunch. It was built in 1792, and in combination with a lower lighthouse could guilde ships through shingle and sandbacks. The lower lighthouse was lost to the sea in 1887; this one here will go the same way in only a few years, with erosion here being very rapid. The first submarine telegraph cable from England to the Netherlands departed from near here in 1853.

We walked along the beach towards the Police Tower

The security police of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment used this as an observation post, its position enabling them to scan the length of the beach looking for potential intruders. The accompanying security fence was removed in 1993.

Black Beacon on the left was built in 1928 to house an experimental "rotating loop" navigational beacon, and now contains more displays about the area. On the right is the power house built in 1933; it now houses displays on the geomorphology and natural history of the shingle.

From the Black Beacon, looking south to the AWRE site, most of which is still closed to general visits. In the distance are some of the later laboratories with heavy reinforced concrete roofs designed to absorb a vertical explosion, leading to the local nickname of the pagodas. In the foreground is Laboratory 1 which had a lightweight roof.

Laboratory 1, built in 1956, the first of six atomic weapons test cells, used for mechanical and vibration testing and for drop tests.

Inside Laboratory 1. The pit on the right was used for vibration tests including on Britain's first atomic bomb, Blue Danube.

Next to Laboratory 1 are the remains of the impact facility - the test subjects were accelerated to high speed on a rocket-propelled sledge, colliding with the high density concrete wall to test delay fuses for the atomic bombs. The lattice structure on the ground is the remains of a tower which originally stood above the wall and housed high-speed cine equipment to video the impact at 3000 frames per second.

Crossing Stony Ditch once more, a look back at the AWRE laboratories.

The two rounded structures are the end walls of the long model bombing range built in 1954 to test the aerodynamics of atomic bombs and missiles.

Crossing the old airfield site once again, we can see Orford Castle and church on the other side of the river (the river being hidden by the sea walls).

The ditch here was formed when clay was dug out to form the river walls in the late 12th century to protect what at that time was rich grazing land.

Crossing the Ore back to the mainland after a fascinating visit - but plenty more to see and learn another time.


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Unless otherwise stated, all images copyright (c) Stephen and Lucy Dawson