Friday, 14 March 2008

Orford Ness

Orford Ness is a 16km long coastal shingle spit which lies between Aldeburgh and Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast. There is almost 600ha of exposed shingle which is in a constant state of flux due to the eroding and depositing effects of the North Sea.

Orford Ness is home to a wide variety of wildlife including birds, invertebrates, and plants. It is an important breeding ground for the Little Tern (Sterna albifrons) as well as hosting an extensive Gull colony. In addition to these, Divers, Grebes, Cormorants, Egrets, Herons and a multitude of other species can be regularly seen.

The site also has a large number of brackish lagoons, which are pools containing a mixture of fresh and salt water. Some of these were man-made when clay was removed from the area for the construction and repair of river walls. These lagoons provide an ideal habitat for waders and other birds, as well as plants and the rare Starlet Sea Anemone (Nematostella vectensis).

Brackish Lagoon

Because of these unique features, Orford Ness has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area (SPA), and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). This was considered necessary to prevent any further damage or disturbance caused by illegal access by vehicles and pedestrians.

Orford Ness has a rather interesting military history. A large proportion of the site was acquired by the War Department in 1913, and shortly afterwards the area was drained and levelled to form airfields which were used by the Central Flying School's Experimental Flying Section.

During this period, some of the most important developments in the history of warfare took place here. Groundbreaking work was carried out on parachutes, aerial photography, weapon sights, and improved camouflage.

After the war it was reused as a firing and bombing range by the Aeroplane and Armaments Experimental Establishment at nearby Martlesham Heath.

In May 1935 part of the site was requisitioned for use by Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt and his team of scientists who were working on a method of detecting enemy aircraft using radio waves.

Watson-Watt established a scientific research department known as the Ionospheric Research Station. The purpose of which, was to work on research and development of the aerial defence system, which was later called by its more familiar name RADAR.

During the next few months, work was carried out at the site in an attempt to improve the systems range and accuracy. By the end of the year, aircraft could be detected at a distance of 100km, but although this was a remarkable feat of engineering, it soon became apparent that Orford Ness was unsuitable for further research and another site would be needed.

In order to facilitate this, Bawdsey Manor Estate was purchased at a bargain price of £24,000. Shortly afterwards, Watson-Watt and his team moved to the new premises and began to convert the manor house and its various outbuildings into suitable workshops.

Huge wooden and steel towers were erected and the site became Britains first Chain Home Radar Station.

There were almost 60 of these systems installed along the coast of Britain, of which, there were two types. The Chain Home stations (AMES Type 1) provided long range detection, whereas the Chain Home Low stations (AMES Type 2) provided short range detection.

They were a huge success during the Battle of Britain where they provided an early warning of incoming Luftwaffe raids.

Ironically, the Chain Home system was used against the British when the Germans deployed their own radar system known as Kleine Heidelberg Parasit. This enabled them to track the British aeroplanes using radio signals emitted from the Chain Home radars!

There's not much remaining of the Chain Home system anymore as most of the masts have been dismantled. However, a mast still exists at Great Baddow in Essex, and the Bawdsey Radar Group has gone to extraordinary lengths in a bid to restore the Transmitter Block at Bawdsey.

During the Second World War, the site was extensively used to carry out bomb ballistics and firing trials. The ballistics tests were observed from the relative safety of the bomb ballistics building which dates back to the early 1930's.

Ballistics Building

The building contained all the instrumentation required to record the flights, trajectories, and impact characteristics of the bombs, and to assist in the preparation of more accurate aiming procedures.

Whereas the bomb ballistics tests were designed to gain a better understanding of targeting and aiming systems, the information obtained from the firing trials was used to determine the vulnerabilities of aircraft and their associated components.

Aircraft and their parts were attacked using a wide variety of ammunition and ordnance, including machine gun ammunition, rockets, and other projectiles.

An area of the site was used as a plate range, where various types of projectile were fired at armour plates and paper targets to determine their efficacy.

Plate Store

During the 1950's, attention shifted to the research and development of atomic weapons. The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) acquired the site and began developing the Atomic Bomb.

Six huge laboratories were built to facilitate environmental testing of the nuclear weapons. During these tests the bombs were subjected to vibration, extremes of temperature, shocks, and high G forces.

Climatic Chamber

Two of the laboratories have affectionately become known as the "Pagodas" because their roofs appear to be supported upon tall pillars.

The two "Pagodas"

This was to minimise the effect of an explosion by venting the gases upward, through the gaps between the pillars.

The Blue Danube has also been tested on this site, quite possibly in laboratory 1, which was used for vibration testing and drop testing of the larger bombs.

Laboratory 1


There are many relics from this period lying rusting and twisted in the shingle. The nose-cone and pieces of panel below were spotted behind a bush.

Don't stray off the designated footpaths though, as there's still a small amount of unexploded ordnance on the site that is liable to explode if disturbed.

During the 1970's, developmental work had begun on an Over The Horizon (OTH) backscatter radar codenamed Cobra Mist.

The system consisted of a huge array of aerials arranged in a fan shape and connected to a central pole, covering an arc of almost 120 degrees.

It was designed to monitor air and missile activity in Eastern Europe and Russia. Unfortunately, it suffered severe technical problems, and after almost three years in service was shut down and the radar was dismantled and removed.

The site is now owned by VT Merlin Communications and broadcasts the BBC World Service.

The former Cobra Mist building

This article wouldn't be complete without mentioning the magnificent lighthouse overlooking the North Sea.

Since the beginning of the 17th century, this wind swept stretch of coast has always been protected by a light of one form or another. The first lighthouse (this is debatable as there are records of a beacon here since 1591) was built around 1630, and was later replaced in 1661 by two lighthouses, the High Light and the Low Light. In 1720, both the wooden lighthouses were replaced by brick towers.

In 1792, a new brick tower was built. This was higher than the original High Light and situated much further back. This became known as the new High Light or Great Light, it is this lighthouse that remains today.

To the casual observer, Orford Ness may appear to be just a vast, desolate landscape. A stark reminder of the Cold War era and the struggle for nuclear supremacy. Upon closer inspection, you will find a habitat that is abundant with wildlife, and that contains a rich history dating back to the 17th century.

We must not forget the scientists responsible for their pioneering work on the development of radar, because without them we may never have been able to successfully defend Britain during the Second World War.

I would like to thank those helpful people at the National Trust who acquired the site in 1995, for their painstaking work of maintaining the sites ecology, and for researching and preserving its valuable history.

If you'd like to find out more about Orford Ness I would recommend attending one of the two guided tours that are run throughout the year, Bombs and Beasties and Trial Imminent. The former providing a general overview of all aspects of the site, and the latter dealing specifically with its military history.

Further details and contact information can be obtained from the Orford Ness National Nature Reserve website.


Cindy said...

Thank you for your note on my blog, so I rushed over to read your posting on Orford Ness ... a place we often visit as we like very much to walk along the Ness and to visit Orford Castle for the views all around at the very top. I enjoyed reading your informative article and seeing your photos, and you've very much captured this area's beauty and history. I look forward to your next posting on our lovely Suffolk. Cindy

James said...

I worked there from 1951 - 58 undertaking bombing trials and designing and building the Rocket Range

Scenic Suffolk said...

Hi James,

Thank you for the comment.

It would be interesting to hear of your experiences during the time you were there.

If you'd like to write an article I'd be more than happy to publish it here.

Kind regards,