Writing my last post about Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness led me to think about the rare shingle spits on our shore line. In Orford Ness in Suffolk we have the best preserved shingle ridges in Europe containing 15% of the world’s vegetated shingle. These habitats are are as fragile and as important as coral reefs.
Although it is actually a 10-mile long peninsula, Orford Ness is known locally as ‘the Island’ and to visit it you have to take a boat. Sarah at Homeslip blog asked me recently if I had been and I hadn’t, although it has been owned by the National Trust since 2003, I had avoided it; the place spooked me. Before the N.T. took it over, it had a long history as a secret facility owned by the War Department.
On this lonely coast, legends and myths are very much embedded in the scenery. There was the dreaded Hell-hound, Black Schuck who roamed the marshes. It was said that a sighting of him foretold death. And then there was the Merman of Orford. Ever since my children were small , the sleepy village of Orford has been a favourite place to visit. There is a little restaurant with its own smoke house where you can eat smoked salmon, and delicious sea food. The children, when they were young, never tired of scampering round the keep of the 12th century castle which is such a distinctive landmark. It is actually 27 metres high, despite my son’s attempt here, to make it look as if it fits into the span of his hand.
The legend which my children never tired of hearing is of a hairy Merman which was caught in fishermens’ nets sometime in the twelfth century. He was taken to the church where he showed no sign of piety and then he was taken to the castle where he would not speak English, although he was hung up by his feet and tortured by way of encouragement. Yes, feet. This was a disappointing sort of Merman, who apparently did not have a fish tail. Eventually, he escaped and returned to his home in the sea.
The stories and rumours about the mysterious experiments on ‘The Island’ added another level to the legends that are so much a part of the landscape here. There was talk of death rays, burnt bodies turning up on the shore, ufos and experiments with nuclear weapons. The island viewed from the quay looked forbidding.
But urged on by Sarah’s comment we decided to make a visit on Friday which was a glorious sunny day. It seems odd that the island is now in the hands of the National Trust, which you normally associate with stately homes, the dusty remains of aristocratic art collections and of course, a nice cup of tea with scones.
There is nothing cosy about this place. You have to keep strictly to the marked paths. Everywhere there are signs that you won’t find at any other N.T. property.
The place was acquired by the MOD in 1913 and a large part of the Ness was drained and airfields built. This heralded a 70 year period of highly classified military research and testing. During the first World War there were experiments in aerial bombing, aircraft and armaments and the first parachutes were tested here. The first one was known as ‘The Guardian Angel’ and it was tested by jumping off the wing of a bi-plane. The parachutes were not adopted for use by pilots though, because incredibly, it was feared they might ‘impair the fighting spirit of the pilots‘.
After the war the site was mothballed until the 1930s when new secret experiments started with radar. The Black Beacon was built in 1928 to house a rotating loop navigation beam. Presumably it was built to look like a disused windmill for camouflage.
In the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War paranoia, this was the most secret site in the country. The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment took it over to conduct their experiments in a series of six laboratories here. The site was guarded by a tall fence which was patrolled by men with guns and dogs. Today, the fence is gone and you enter into what was the most secret part through rusted gates.
The site HQ is now an information building but one didn’t feel like lingering over the displays.
The NT has decided not to clear the site of all the grim reminders of what happened here. They will let everything gradually disintegrate over time. There is so much rusty stuff here, that I thought of Derek Jarman beachcombing for rusty found objects for his garden. I don’t think he would have wanted to collect any of these grim remains.
The shingle is pitted with bomb craters.
The scariest period of Orford Ness was when the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment started testing in a series of laboratories which are incredibly sinister. Britain’s first atomic bomb, Blue Danube was tested here. The lab it was tested in had a pit into which it was lowered and then subjected to stress such as vibration, extremes of temperature and other shocks.
The most sinister of these labs are the ones known as pagodas. They are landmarks which can be seen from miles around. The experiments done here are still veiled in secrecy, although we are told that no fissile material was used. The strange roof shape was for practical purposes, although how weird to have a roof shape usually associated with sacred buildings for such an obscene use.
The last top secret use for this site was in the late 1960s when an Anglo-American project was set up here called ‘Cobra Mist’. This was a multi-million pound over the horizon radar scheme. It consisted of tall antennae and a fan-like, reticulated net of cables. It closed in the early 70s because of white noise and ‘other problems’.
I really wanted to spent more time on the ecological importance of this place, which despite all the horrors is a beautiful place of salt marsh, mud flats and lagoons as well as the precious shingle .
Animals here include large brown hares and Chinese Water Deer. These deer with their savage looking tusks and cute teddy-bear ears escaped from Woburn Abbey years ago along with the destructive muntjacs. They are now all over the marshlands of East Anglia.
On the shingle, vegetated ridges mark the sites of previous high tides.
There is one beautiful building on Orford Ness which was built in 1792 to save lives rather than destroy them. Sadly the lighthouse has been decommissioned. Like the rest of the buildings here it will disappear. Because of the erosion on this coast it will fall into the sea in the next 10 years.
A day spent on Orford Ness is a wonderful way to observe the ecology of this part of the coast in a lonely desolate spot. But it is uncomfortable and disturbing. I’ll let Shelley have the last word.
‘Look at my works ye mighty and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the Decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’