Secret Islands – Spotlight on Orford Ness, Suffolk

Orford Ness has to be one of the most unique, isolated and hauntingly beautiful landscapes on the whole of the British coast. Used by the Ministry of Defence for weapon development throughout the world wars and the Cold War, the whole area was shrouded in state-sanctioned secrecy under the Official Secrets Act until as recently as the 1980s. Today, it’s owned by the National Trust and is both a truly wild and dangerous place, home to many rare plants as well as ruined military buildings and even unexploded munitions!

Orford Ness is only accessible by boat, which definitely enhances your sense of mystery and adventure when visiting. Ferries leave regularly from Orford Quay in Orford Village. Parking is available at the Quay. Check boats are running before you make your way there as they don’t run every day. Booking beforehand is advisable in summer, as numbers are strictly controlled. Information points and museum areas are dotted throughout the site that are rich with interesting things to read about.

View of the Ness taken on my visit there in 2019, before the lighthouse was demolished

Stranger Things 

For me, Orford Ness is a rare example of a place whose modern history I find more intriguing than its ancient past. 

In the middle ages it was mainly used by the poor: those who couldn’t afford food could scavenge there for gull’s eggs and later the area became notorious for smugglers and criminals.

But the 20th Century, is where the Ness’ history becomes truly remarkable. The area was cordoned off by the Ministry of Defence through both world wars and the Cold War as a site for military experimentation. From the development of the very-first radar technology, bomb ballistics, rockets, homing beacons and later even atomic weapons, the site has been highly dangerous and highly restricted for the last hundred years. 

At no time more so than when, at the height of the Cold War the AWRE (Atomic Weapons Research Establishment) used Orford Ness to experiment and research the atomic bomb. Several crumbling, concrete structures from this period called ‘pagodas’ can be seen today. I’m calling for a British remake of ‘Stranger Things’ set here!

Half-buried: some of the Cold-War pagodas where atomic weapons were tested
Abandoned: the site fell into disrepair in the 1970s and 80s.

Rumour vs Reality

Information about what the military actually did on the Ness was only made public in the 1980s under the Official Secrets Act.

Because Orford Ness, already a strange and otherworldly landscape, has been shrouded in so much secrecy – countless rumours and apocryphal stories about it have circulated. Many believed that the Nazis managed to land there during WWII and were repelled in a battle that was hushed up by the British government. In the 1980s UFO citings in the nearby Rendlesham forest were attributed by some to light coming from the lighthouse and in the middle ages a strange crocodile-like beast was reported by locals to haunt the Ness’s waters.

The actual use of the area was top secret until the late 1980s.

What’s there today: A truly wild place

Though you’ll experience Orford Ness as an eerie, seemingly barren terrain, remember to look down as you walk around and you’ll notice it is in fact full of rare plants that have adapted to survive the relentless wind, salt-marshes and nutrient-lacking shingle. Sea peas, sea kale, sea holly, samphire and sea lavender can all be spotted here throughout the year, as well as the more common but pretty pink sea thrift and I also saw several other delicate shingle-flowers that I couldn’t identify.

Man vs Nature. Yellow-horned poppies growing by a military ruin. Image by National Trust/Joe Cornish.

Due to its exposed location, the landscape of Orford Ness is shrinking day by day. 

The grade II listed lighthouse, that I was lucky enough to see on my visit last year, was recently demolished due to structural instability caused by coastal erosion. Plans to build a monument representing the top of the lighthouse further inland have been announced. Many of the original features of the lighthouse, including the lantern room, have been saved during the demolition and will be reconstructed.

A place that is truly one of a kind – packed with history, wildlife and myth: get yourself down to Orford Ness … while you still can!

Published by lizzbythesea

Blogging all things coastal and magical. Fantasy writer.

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