The Home Front
Tucked away at the end of a long lane in the village of Orford on the Suffolk coast, there is a small jetty where pleasure boats arrive and depart on cruises up and down the estuary of the River Alde. The mouth of the river is actually some miles south of Orford, at Shingle Street – a collection of houses on a stony beach with one of the bleakest [or most stunning] outlooks in England, depending upon your viewpoint. But Orford itself is shielded from the buffetting of the North Sea by a large sand and shingle spit that runs for some ten miles, and is known as Orford Ness. A short boat ride from said jetty it might be, but until a few years ago, to try and visit the Ness would have landed you in a cell, or possibly worse…..
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Now owned by the National Trust, Orford Ness is a site littered with remnants of the experiments of the British military, as well as being a noted birdwatching site. These two seemingly disparate themes sum the place up quite accurately – it is stunning, bleak, beautiful, but also brooding and dangerous, a place where the word sinister really does not quite do itself justice. Let me explain. But first, let us take the small motor boat and cross the river……
In the last century, it became clear with varying degrees of urgency that Britain was going to have to up her game in the warfare stakes. The World Wars saw the emergence of the air portable bomb, and later nuclear technology, the invention of radar [which started off at Bawdsey Manor, some 15 miles south of Orford], and other forms of automated warfare. It became clear that the government of the time would need to find a large and sparsely populated area in which to set up some kind of experimental compound. I say ‘sparsely populated’ because it would have meant that a) the likelihood of arousing significant local interest would have been reduced, and from a more rather sinister perspective, there were fewer people around to be harmed should anything go disastrously wrong……..
The place which fitted the bill was found to be Orford Ness, in deepest Suffolk. Hidden away in a part of the country where few people went at the time, it had the advantage of natural isolation and was thus easier to patrol. And so it was that this bleak spot,unlike anywhere else in England, was earmarked as the MOD’s secret test bed.
As you will notice from the picture above, the welcome is hardly Holiday Inn standard. The signage was never removed when the Ness was handed back from the MOD to the National Trust. However there are two good reasons to be cautious here. One is that you risk disturbing delicate natural bird habitats [it is a site of considerable natural interest with migrating birds flocking here in their thousands], and the other is that you may step on something that blows you sky high.
It is hard to describe the atmosphere on the spit. Eerie is one word that springs to mind, but the sinister feeling which pervades is tempered by the other-worldliness and stark beauty of this lonely little world. Looking out to the East, you become aware that there is nothing but sea until you reach the Dutch coast.
There were two parts to the activities on Orford Ness. To the north of the spit was a site known latterly as ‘Cobra Mist‘ – a vast installation used for transmitting and receiving both radio and radar signals. This site was used as a BBC transmitter for the World Service until, in March, budget cuts forced its closure. To the south was the military site, on which were built a number of buildings dedicated to the purpose of testing bombs- some conventional, but some nuclear. For this rason, the buildings were constructed unlike any other in the UK. Walls of reinforced concrete were built feet thick, shored up by vast banks of shingle. The ones used for nuclear tests were also built with a thick concrete roof structure supported on concrete pillars, an appearance which as we shall see later, has earned them the name ‘pagodas’ locally. These must be the most sinister looking buildings I have ever seen, their location making them seem even more strange.
I walked – and it is some distance, there are no tourist buses laid on here, which again reinforces the idea that you are not being encouraged to be here in the first place – to the eastern side of the spit, making sure I stayed firmly on the paved roads. The scrubland, like the bits pictured above, come with a stern warning. You may step on a live mine if you stray off the path. That was warning enough for me. Eventually, after crossing a steel bridge, you see buildings in the distance, as well as a lighthouse which warns ships off the shallow waters of the coast.
As you approach these buildings, which sit in the middle of a strange nothingness, you see that they are functional rather than aesthetic. They were built for a purpose, and the imagination runs wild when you try and guess what it was. That is the effect the Ness has on you.
I wandered into the building above, taking momentary refuge from the sun [there is no natural shade on the spit], and felt a chill. It brought to mind two things – abattoir and mortuary. The real purpose of this strange little structure was to host ballistic tests on bomb casings to see how they would stand up to impacts.
Walking on a little further, I came next to what was labelled the ‘Testing Building’. Abandoned and decaying, I was drawn inside by the same feeling of morbid fascination. The signs said that “This test building was used to test the bombs with heat and cold. The entrance to the right goes into the plant room, where the massive boilers were situated. Note the diagonal walls which were built around all the chamber entrances, as ‘blast traps’ in case of an explosion.”
Workers here, who would have been members of the forces anyway, were subject to the Official Secrets Act. And the activities that happened here really were top secret. My schoolboy feelings said ‘James Bond’ – because this is exactly the kind of place that Bond would have found himself after a blindfolded boat ride; a test bed for technology that nearly destroyed humanity and the world. I could not resist going inside.
The nature of the buildings here means that on foot, each one has to be entered in stages. First, a right angled entrance [to minimise blast damage outside]. Then, a corridor like the one above – long, cold and hospital-like. These corridors were capable of accommodating a reversing lorry, and an overhead gantry would then be used to lift the bomb off the lorry and on to a trolley, on which it would be taken into the chamber [which is visible at the end of the corridor above].
I then entered the chamber – as you can see, this is now derelict and gives only an impression of what it was actually like. But the feeling was of a strange, basic indoor swimming pool – the pit you can see in the floor was where the bomb was placed, and then various tests were carried out – vibration tests, heat and cold tests, and in other buildings, ballistic tests [actually firing a bomb case into a concrete wall to measure deformation]. Because of the complete isolation [I barely saw anybody else the whole day], you are able to reflect on what this really all meant. Here was a room in which the most lethal technology ever known on the planet was being developed. Although it was the Americans who actually used it, this was the stuff that changed the world. It stopped the Second World War. Inadvertently, It started the Cold War. And so this facility continued right through the 1950s and 60s, refining, testing, recording destructive potential.
From here, the day becoming somewhat more sobering as it progressed, I left the chamber and moved on, by now excited at the unreality of this little world I had found myself in, barely 50 miles from my home.
Battered by the cutting, cold east winds and bleached by the unrelenting sunlight, everything on Orford Ness has a slightly decayed, washed out quality about it. Small concrete huts still contained the remains of equipment used to control the experiments from s ‘safe’ distance. But when you see them now, and their proximity to the actual bombs, you realise that even these vast buildings would have been absolutely no use at all had anything gone wrong. Anybody within miles of the Ness would have been wiped out immediately. But there is a slightly ramshackle charm, a certain Britishness about these Heath Robinson contraptions that makes you respect what we as a nation were doing at the time. This was, in a sense, the frontier not only geographically but also it was the bleeding edge of science and warfare at the time.
Feeling rather isolated out here, because I was a good mile from the jetty, I began to walk back under the unrelenting Suffolk sun, all the time seeing the spit in new ways. There can be few places in Britain where history is so alive, so complete and enveloping. Indeed, this is accentuated by the fact that if you walk in the wrong places, it could still injure or kill you. In the distance, because you are still not allowed to actually get close to them, sit the ‘pagoda’ buildings.
These were the places used to actually test live bombs [although not, the MOD claims, with actual nuclear explosives]; the other buildings only tested unarmed ones. Sitting serenely in the distance, unreachable and mysterious, they exude a powerful feeling of some higher force. Whether they will be made accessible to the public one day I am not sure. The official description of what happened here goes as follows:
“The first of six test cells was completed in 1956. The main section of the building is divided into two cells. Some contained a pit into which very large weapons such as Britain’s first atomic bomb, Blue Danube, could be lowered by a 10-ton crane, prior to vibration units being attached. The cell was then sealed to allow the manipulation of the internal environment by an array of air conditioning units. Others contained a hydraulic ram, which was used to subject the test piece to extreme ‘g’ forces. A light aluminium roof was designed to blow off in the event of an accident. Later test cells had heavy reinforced concrete roofs designed to absorb a blast and any objects thrown out by an accidental explosion. The tests were designed to mimic the rigours to which a weapon might be subjected before detonation, and included vibration, extremes of temperature, shocks and G forces.Although no nuclear material was said to be involved the high explosive initiator was present and a test failure might have resulted in a catastrophic explosion.”