And so I must come clean about the real reason for my visit to Orford Ness.
Retracing Dolby’s footsteps had some appeal it’s true, but I have a very photogenic red and white lighthouse much nearer home. The coastal nature reserve also has photo appeal, but again there is a wildfowl and wetland centre virtually on my doorstep.
The Radio Masts visible to the north may now be nothing more controversial than former BBC World Service transmitters (though I’m sure some foreign powers would see this as a weapon of western propaganda), but the same site was formerly Cobra Mist, part of an American long-range radar system built in the 1960’s when the Cold War was waged. An early warning against Soviet missile strikes. The system was plagued by problems however, with “noise” producing phantom signals that suggested missiles were coming from areas where there was no such activity. The facility was abandoned in 1973.
Then there is the strange wooden building not far from the lighthouse itself. Resembling a windmill robbed of its sails this is the Black Beacon, another experimental structure but from an earlier period. Before the invention of Radar, test were conducted here into what was publicly discussed as an aid to navigation that might replace the lighthouse. The assistance of passing shipping was enlisted as part of this cover. The truth was that this was a beacon being developed to aid the navigation of military aircraft, a fact not revealed until years later.
An area which still undulates as a result of the craters within it. Bombing was tested here, not so much the weapons themselves as the technique for releasing them. Flight speed, altitude etc were important factors to be taken into consideration, and the methods of the First World War were pretty rudimentary, so work to improve them was essential. There is still so much ordnance undiscovered here that safe routes are marked carefully for visiting the individual points of interest on the Ness.
Let’s be clear, there was no actual fissile material present here so I had no need of Geiger counter or radiation detector, but the detonation methods were tested in a number of buildings here, their exteriors hidden beneath great banks of shingle. The shingle placed not as a defence against external attack, but as a means of dissipating any blast that might occur within.
The early labs had aluminium roofing so that the blast, forced upwards by these thick walls would remove the roof and do no further damage (so long as you weren’t inside!), but these were superseded by what are now referred to as “The Pagodas”, two similar buildings but with a concrete, shingle covered roof supported on thick concrete pillars. Here the blast would be channeled upwards to that roof and then horizontally out between the pillars. The windows between the pillars were glazed with perspex to prevent injuries from glass shards being projected over great distances.
Abandoned long ago they are now all derelict, though at certain times of the year guided visits to one of the Pagodas can be arranged. Nevertheless they remain a fascinating piece of our recent history.
So with Orford Ness out-of-bounds for so long, secret weaponry being tested,and deliberate government misinformation in place, is it so surprising that strange lights were seen Rendlesham, or that a conspiracy theory sprung up?