Looking for an unusual ramble for the family in the school holidays? PETER FROST comes up with a fascinating destination with a bizarre history.
Orford Ness in Suffolk is a most amazing place. If you had tried to visit it any time in most of the last hundred years you would have undoubtedly been arrested and certainly tried for spying or treason.
The Ness has been Britain’s most secret military base since 1913. Over those years it has been home to all kinds of intense and terrifying military experimentation.
Amongst the pioneering work before and during the First World War were early experiments on the parachute, aerial photography, machine gun sights, early aircraft and camouflage.
After that war the Ness was used as a firing and bombing range. Later came top secret navigation beacons and early radar experiments. During the Second World War more secret experimental work concentrated on bomb ballistics and firing trials.
Post WW2 the cold war frenzy came to Orford Ness with many experiments in all kinds of horrific weapons and radio techniques some of which are probably still state secrets.
In 1968 more top secret work – and anti-soviet paranoia – bought American radio experts to Orford to develop the over the horizon radar that tried to detect Russian missiles heading for our shores. The expensive project was called Cobra Mist but it didn’t work and after just three years the whole scheme was shelved and the huge antennae were scrapped.
But this was the cold war, disinformation was the order of the day, so a cover story was leaked. Locals were told, and the leaked story persists even today in many UFO publications and web sites, that in fact the huge multi million pound antennae was built for the sole purpose of concluding a peace treaty with an alien space craft hovering above the Earth. Once the treaty was concluded the vast dish was taken down.
Farfetched? Of course but almost more unbelievable are the huge ‘pagodas’ built to test atom bomb casings and fuses and they are certainly genuine and still there for you to see and explore – but only on the guided walks. This must be the only National Trust Property with a real atom bomb on display.
We do know that for decades the radio transmitters on Orford Ness broadcast propaganda programmes from the World Service of the BBC beamed toward the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries.
Today Orford Ness is a secret no more – although I guess many of its real secrets are still to be told – still buried in secret government archives.
Today The National Trust will ferry you across to the Orford Ness jetty in their boat the Octavia Hill. Once on the Ness you are free to wander over most of the previously top secret location. Do keep to the paths, there are still unexploded shells and bombs being discovered and for that reason no dogs are allowed.
Allow several hours for a wonderful walk around this haunting landscape of amazing history and mystery. You can explore either with a guide or on your own following the way-marked route or the printed National Trust walk booklet.
As well as the amazing history this is a rare and unique natural landscape too. Orford Ness is one of the biggest vegetated shingle spits in the world and the wildlife is of as much interest as its grim military past.
Strange plants like sea pea, horned poppy and sea lavender and sea kale thrive here. Most impressive is the huge breeding colony of lesser black- backed gulls that make their home on this remote outpost. Look out too for little terns, cormorants, egrets, herons and grebe all of which are common.
Oh yes, and if by chance you do get questioned by a couple of spooks or spies perhaps it would be better if you didn’t tell them you read about Orford Ness in the Morning Star!
This article first published in the Morning Star, 2012