All you need to know about visiting Orford Ness: Artness and Military Secrets

Visiting Orford Ness was forbidden. We could see it, just across the water. There were masts. Curious buildings. Mysterious explosions. Orford Ness was a secret site. Now it is a National Trust property that anyone can visit. Summer 2021 sees Orford Ness playing host to Afterness, a series of art installations overseen by Artangel.

two paths converge in a shingle landscape beneath a huge cloudy sky
View from the Black Beacon

Orford Ness

Orford Ness was part of my childhood. My cousins lived on the other side of the river to it. But it was secret. How anything could be so big and visible could be secret mystified me as much as the strange buildings. In East Anglia in the 70s and 80s we were used to military bases. There were two huge American airbases in the forest on the other side of my cousins house. Orford Ness was another level of off limits. We still don’t know all of what went on there but let me shine a light on what we do know, but first Afterness.

Danger Unexploded Ordnance sign
Mind where you step!

Afterness at Orford Ness until 30 October 2021

Artangel places art in places where you least expect it, the latest Artangel project is Afterness. Walking is a large part of visiting Orford Ness, as part of Afterness you are given a pair of headphones playing poetry inspired by the Ness written and performed by Ilya Kaminsky. The Black Beacon has been transformed into a sound library where you can listen to sounds of the past Ness whilst looking out over the panoramic views. My favourite is Alice Channer’s giant steel bramble that seems to grow in and spill out of the Shelter. Lab 1 has the appearance of an abandoned house, the ceiling has long ago fallen in and it is heard to see exactly where reality stops and art begins. Emma McNally’s piece in The Armoury actually made me squeak, when I first saw it I thought it was some sort of organic growth, as my eye adjusted to the gloom it was still impressive but not as scary. Orford Ness is an other worldly place whenever you visit, Afterness makes it just a tiny bit more surreal.

The Residents installation by Tatiana Trouvé Artangel Afterness
The Residents by Tatiana Trouvé in Lab 1

Orford Ness Spit

Coastal geomorphology students will know that Orford Ness is a spit. Not any old spit but Europe’s largest vegetated shingle spit. Non-geographers, Orford Ness is a really long thin strip of land about 10 miles long, made mainly of shingle, that starts at Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast and stretches down to just short of Shingle Street. It is wild, remote and beloved by nature. Havergate Island nestles between Orford Ness and the mainland, the two of them are a designated Nature Reserve and form part of the Alde-Ore estuary site of scientific interest (SSI).

Orford Ness History

For centuries Orford Ness was a wild place beloved by seabirds. Pretty much the only humans that visited the spit were either gathering gull eggs, grazing sheep and cattle, tending the Orford Ness lighthouse or smugglers. All that changed in the early years of the twentieth century.

Red shingle path leading to Black Beacon Orford Ness
Follow the red shingle path

First World War on Orford Ness

in 1913 the War Department acquired Orford Ness and set about building one of the world’s first airfields. It was here that much of the early work was done on how to use planes as weapons. Parachutes, aerial photography and machine gun sights were all worked on here.

RADAR Research on Orford Ness

Robert Watson-Watt and a small team came to Orford Ness in 1935 to set up the Ionospheric Research Station. What was really going on was secret research into detecting aeroplanes long before you can see them. Today we know this as RADAR. The work that was done here directly influenced the outcome of the Battle of Britain and the outcome of World War Two.

Metal circle in the shingle on Orford Ness
What do you think this perfect circle was used for?

Atomic Weapons Research Establishment

Many of the buildings on Orford Ness have shingle heaped up against them. The shingle was shovelled into place to absorb forces from explosions. In the 1950s the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) took up residence on Orford Ness. Atomic bombs were tested here. Not the actual nuclear stuff but the everything else involved in an atomic bomb explosion. Vibration, temperature extremes and G forces were measured here.

Lab 1 Orford Ness
Lab 2 Orford Ness

Cobra Mist

Cobra Mist was a top secret Anglo American radar related research project that started in the late 60s. There was a fanlike string of antennae leading to a large grey building, along with an aluminium ground net that covered 80 acres. Cobra Mist was intended to detect aircraft, missiles and satellite launchings. Everything was very secret and much of it remains so today. The big grey building houses still houses radio transmitters that were used to transmit BBC World Service until recently.

What to see on Orford Ness

Birds and ballistics. Everywhere you go you are accompanied by the cry of curlews and the roar of wind. Random bits of metal scatter the shingle. Notices encourage you to stay to the path as there is a danger of unexploded bombs. Dotted around the shingle are mysterious buildings, some you can enter, others remain off limits.

Rusted metal drum with the Black Beacon on the horizon
Rusted metal dots the shingle

Bomb Ballistics Building

The Bomb Ballastics Building stands on its own. A brick built building, constructed in 1933, it used house the very latest recording equipment. Orford Ness was at that time used to test bombs. The equipment in the bomb ballistics building measured every about the flight of the bombs with the information used to fine tune the areodynamics of the missiles. Now there is a roof top viewing gallery that offers fine views.

Bomb Ballistics Building Orford Ness
Bomb Ballistics Building

Pagodas

The Orford Ness Pagodas look like modernist beachside homes, in fact they were built to test Polaris missiles. They shimmer and glimmer on the shingle out of reach as you still can’t step inside the Pagodas.

Orford Ness Pagodas
Orford Ness Pagodas

Black Beacon

Viewed from afar the Black Beacon looks like just another abandoned East Anglian windmill but it was a never a windmill. It was built to house a rotating loop navigation beacon, this was probably part of homing beacon experiments. Nowadays, it is devoid of equipment but you can climb up it and get stunning views across the shingle.

Black Beacon Orford Ness
Black Beacon Orford Ness

Orford river trips

If striding out across the Shingle is not your thing then you can can still get close to Orford Ness with a boat trip. One of my favourite things is a trip on the Lady Florence River Cruise Restaurant. As the name implies this is less of boat trip and more a moving restaurant with great views. You can go for breakfast and lunch cruises all year round but for dinner or supper only in the summer. For less food and more birds try Suffolk River Trips, the Tilly departs from Orford Quay and takes in Havergate Island as well as the Ness.

River Ore estuary Suffolk

Places to Eat near Orford Ness

Eating on Orford Ness means a picnic as there is no food available on the spit. The Butley Orford Oysterage in Orford is one of my favourite restaurants in the whole wide world, it is where I celebrated my 18th birthday with my family. Tasty picnic fare can be obtained from the Pump Street Chocolate whilst Pinney’s of Orford sell all manner of smoked fish.

Brick toilet block Orford Ness
I don’t usually take pictures of toilet blocks!

Visiting Orford Ness

Visiting Orford Ness takes careful planning. The only way onto the spit is via the National Trust ferry, when the weather is really bad the ferry won’t run, even if you have pre-booked tickets. Trust me, if the weather is that bad you wouldn’t want to be out exploring Orford Ness. Wear sturdy outdoor shoes and bring a waterproof, you will be outside most of the time, some of the time you will be walking across shingle which is hard going. Visiting Orford Ness is not for the infirm or the very young.

  • Orford Ness, Quay Street, Orford Suffolk IP12 2NU
  • Open: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Outbound ferries 10am – 12.45pm
  • Ferry price: National Trust Members £4.50, non members £12
  • Parking at Orford Ness Quay is plentiful and pay and display.
  • Getting to Orford Ness by public transport is tricky your best bet is a train to Melton and then bus to Orford
Visiting Orford Ness former secret military research site now a national nature reserve and area of outstanding natural beauty

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