The Sinister Secrets of Orford Ness.

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.
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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.

Orford Castle

Orford Castle

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.

Black Beacon

Black Beacon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The approach to the ‘island’  is beautiful on a sunny August day.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

Beautifully cared for sheep have been brought in to graze the reclaimed marshes.
IMG_0838 There are many rare birds on the marshes and little Terns nest here.

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This is the view over Stony Ditch where you walk over a bailey bridge into the shingle area.
IMG_0835Birds here include marsh Harriers and even Merlin. I saw plenty of Wheatears and little Pipits.

On the  shingle, vegetated ridges mark the sites of previous high tides.

Vegetated ridges

Vegetated ridges


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.
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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.’

Ozymandias. Percy Byssche Shelley.
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37 Responses to The Sinister Secrets of Orford Ness.

  1. Debra says:

    Well said and your photos have captured such an eerie feel here. I just watched You’ve Been Trumped last night and learned a bit about the dunes of Scotland. It fills me with such pain to know that the last of hte wild spaces enjoy so little protection. When nature goes wild it all feels so good. When humans go wild it is absolutely sinister. One war after another, each worse than the last … We just passed the anniversary of the bombings in Japan and it seems like hardly anyone even paused to remember. Thanks so much for this post.

    • Chloris says:

      It is encouraging that the Ness is being looked after now and managed in the best way to protect the flora and the bird life. At last it is recognised as being important and worth saving.
      Maybe it is a good thing to have the crumbling remains of its military past to remind us.

  2. Angie says:

    Yet another great post Chloris. I can’t decide if the fact this area will soon disappear is a bad thing or not. Meantime, it remains as a painful reminder. The loss of such a habitat for the wildlife will too be devastating.
    I can see why your children were fascinated by the Merman tale, although, a Merman with feet was not the first image that sprung to my mind.

    • Chloris says:

      The whole spit won’ t disappear but it is constantly shifting. The part where the lighthouse sits will disappear, but this has happened before . There was another one here before this one.
      The site is being carefully managed and conserved. It is an important breeding ground for birds.

  3. That is a spooky place, I think nature is taking it back and hopefully it stays that way. I live on a geologically ancient ridge in Florida and find some weird stuff in my yard – no Merman yet. I would love to meet one!

    • Chloris says:

      Mermen are a bit thin on the ground these days. It seems a pity really.
      What sort of stuff do you find? Fossils?

      • Huge thick clam shells and bits of shell. The clam shells are probably 4 or 5x thicker than what I find on the beach. The habitat is called Florida Scrub when everything else was in the Ocean this was sticking out and grew plants-there are some funky native plants here.

  4. I am glad you saw the friendlier side to Orford at the castle and in the small town. There are many lovely buildings and a couple of rather good places to eat. As for places to see birds I should head to RSPB Minsmere and avoid the remnants which are rather depressing. Good post as always

  5. Chloris says:

    You are right Minsmere is wonderful and we do head up there a couple of times a year. I love all the coast between Orford and Southwold but I think one visit to Orford Ness is enough.

  6. Christina says:

    I don’t know why I’ve never heard of this place, Liz; I’m not sure if I would like to visit or not, you seem to be visiting places that have a sinister feeling about them, I think I preferred Derek Jarman’s garden, but I did very much enjoy your description

  7. Chloris says:

    Thank you Christina. There are no gardens on this post but I think most of us gardeners are passionate about saving our flora and fauna from further harm. The NT are working hard to protect these fragile habitats. The vegetated shingle ridges are particularly rare and important.
    For my next post I will go back to the garden and show some pretty flowers.

  8. snowbird says:

    Ooohh….another eerie post, this did give me the creeps, to think so many war weapons have been developed on what should have been an unspoilt area of natural beauty….
    Just loved the legends, the Merman had me laughing….what a story!
    It was good to learn a little more about Suffolk shingle….all utterly fascinating! Always a good read here!xxx

  9. Chloris says:

    Thank you Dina, this place gives me the creeps too. I was glad to get on the boat and go back I had awful nightmares that night.
    As I said to Christina, for the next post we are back to pretty flowers.

    • snowbird says:

      I get the nightmares, I would have have them also….but, I really enjoyed reading your last two posts….enthralling! History can’t be glossed over and I’m glad you didn’t attempt to do that!
      I do LOVE your pretty flower posts too of course….lol.xxx

  10. Brian Skeys says:

    A very thought provoking and interesting post, Chloris. This is an area I knew nothing about, thank you. I think it is encouraging that if man leaves an area alone nature gradually reclaims it. I read in the paper today that the Dungeness desert where Derek Jarman’s garden is has been put up for sale for £1.5million. Another one for the NT?

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Brian. Yes, I have been reading in the paper this morning about the sale of Dungeness. I wonder what will become of it. It would be great if the NT took it over. They are very good on conservation.

  11. hoehoegrow says:

    What a haunting place. So full of contrasts and still haunted by its past. It must have been a sobering visit which I can imagine was difficult to make. So much easier to visit a NT house & garden, with a tearoom and shop! Thank you for an unusual and original post . Strangely enough, I was just looking at a map of Suffolk today and musing on what that particular area was like.

    • Chloris says:

      The coast here is lovely and welll worth a visit. My favourite place to walk is Dunwich but Walberswick is beautiful too. I don’ t know whether I would recommend going over to Orford Ness, it is quite disturbing. Interesting though.

  12. Tina says:

    It’s definitely a place that is uncomfortable. It was an interesting post though. I’ve heard of Orford and must have seen a photo of the castle (between your son’s fingers), because it looks familiar.

    • Chloris says:

      The twelfth century castle is quite a well know landmark. Orford has become very popular with tourists in the last few years. I preferred it years ago when it was a sleepy fishing village.

  13. homeslip says:

    Another great post! I’m going to dig out my photos tomorrow. I remember our visit far exceeded my expectations. We visited the Ness while staying at Sutton Hoo. The NT converted the house into generous holiday flats and it was very special to be there ‘out of hours’ walking over the mounds at nightfall with only the sheep for company …

    • Chloris says:

      Oh what fun, did you stay in the converted sheep shearer’ s shed? A friend of mine works part time as a volunteer at Sutton Hoo. It is a fascinating place.
      It was your comment on my last post which made me decide to go to Orford Ness, so thank you. It is disturbing, but very interesting. I always wondered just what was going on over there. We will never know the full story of course, but now a lot of the secrets have been revealed.

      • homeslip says:

        Did you see that the Dungeness Estate (468 acres of shingle spit but not the power station) is now for sale for a cool £1.5m? No, we stayed in Tranmer House which was the home of Colonel Frank Pretty of the 4th Batallion of the Suffolk Regiment and his wife, Edith. I’m just re-reading about her in my book, “Sutton Hoo Burial Griund of Kings” by Martin Carver. She was no stranger to archaeology and began investigating the mounds in 1938. Tranmere House was carefully restored by the National Trust and converted into quite luxurious holiday flats. We had two short holidays there with the children, just magical both times!

  14. Kris P says:

    I hate to think that there are hares, sheep and Chinese Water deer running around among unexploded ordnance. It sounds rather like our Area 51, except that Orford Ness has a longer history and a Merman instead of aliens.

    • Chloris says:

      The grazing marshes where the sheep are is safe. They are moved in winter when it gets too wet. They keep the grass short for ground laying birds. They have their own devoted shepherd. One of them, Wendy Woodland, even had her own Facebook page.
      Oh, but we have aliens, as well as phantom dogs and mermen. Rendlesham forest , which is close by, is the site of a famous, so called UFO incident involving Americans from the nearby Bentwaters base. In the end it was thought that it was the flashing of the Orford Ness lighthouse which looked like strange lights in the forest.

  15. Sam says:

    Anywhere that you have to access by boat is intriguing to me! How fascinating, thanks so much for this post. Most MOD places are fantastic for wildlife because they are inaccessible to lots of people and flora and fauna are generally left alone. An odd contrast, I always think, but a cheering one with hope that nature wins out in the end.

  16. Flighty says:

    A most enjoyable post along with wonderful pictures about a really fascinating place. I visited there some years ago and think that has to be one of the most interesting places that I’ve been to in the UK. The stark contrast of it once being a secret establishment which has now been left for nature to reclaim makes it a fairly unique place. xx

  17. Peter/Outlaw says:

    Very interesting post and place. What a history it has – ghosts, a merman, and secret testing. Your post caused me to look online for images of Orford. I can understand why you enjoy visiting as it looks like a charming village. So sad that our species is a warring one and the consequences of that on the natural world.

    • Chloris says:

      Orford is such a lovely place to visit in summer. One day Orford Ness will be a lovely Nature Reserve with just a few rusty remains as a reminder of its military past. The trouble is, goodness knows how many unexploded bombs lie buried in the shingle.

  18. pbmgarden says:

    Wow, what a place to visit. It does seem a bit creepy, but fascinating all the same.

    • Chloris says:

      It is fascinating but in a horrible way. To think that the best scientific minds of the time devoted themselves to working on these nuclear horrors. Incredible, I wonder if they ever stopped to ask themselves just what they were doing.

  19. I would be interested to tour this but not sure if I could say I would “enjoy” it. The signs alone would sort of kill the typically ebullient feeling I have when trotting around in natural areas. I so appreciate your choice of closing poem. Most apt.

  20. Chloris says:

    Indeed the signs are a bit off putting. If I see an unusual flower I am quite likely to rush over to it to examine it. I had to keep reminding myself not to do that here.
    I am glad you liked the last verses of Ozymandias here, I thought they were quite appropriate.

  21. A very interesting post, Chloris. I can see the dichotomy in touring a place like this.’Grim reminders’ indeed.

  22. It does look like a creepy place but at least nature is taking over and there is new life and growth.

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