And so to my last hours in East Anglia.
With a meeting in the North East that seemed important I couldn’t spare another full day here, so decided to head for the North Norfolk coast road once again. Disappointingly you don’t see much of the sea; the area being so flat that any obstruction by buildings, bushes or trees is enough to take away the view. Even the natural beauty by the road is a fleeting pleasure as there are few places to stop and explore.
I headed for Morston thinking I might have a stroll around the area before returning to County Durham at which point I realised I should have done more research. The bulk of the Blakeney Point Nature Reserve was away to my right, or rather access was. The reserve is rather like Orfordness in reverse, a long peninsula that divides river from sea. Before me was the river and folk who had come prepared for watersports, which I had not.
I was weighing up the options of driving to a better vantage point or making do with what I had when a man in orange ran past me and asked if I was going on a seal trip. “No.” I replied, “But I’d like to!”.
And so a couple of minutes later I and a couple of dozen others were making our way towards the mouth of the estuary in search of colonies of grey and common seals. I realised immediately that I had just boarded a craft with no shelter, under ominously greying skies and with no waterproof. Was it a good omen that the skylarks were still aloft?
As our journey continued we were joined by terns. Sandwich terns, common terns, arctic terns and little terns are all nesting in the area. Perhaps it was as well that Storm Petrels don’t colonise these parts.
And then we reached the sand banks that were our main objective and all thoughts of the weather were forgotten. Fat and lazy with an odour of fish they nevertheless charmed everyone aboard and we had lots of time to photograph them before our boat returned to shore and beat the rain. I don’t think we would have cared anyway.
Having completed my Orford Ness adventure it was time to head further north for my final evening in East Anglia, leaving Suffolk behind and heading for the coast (of course) of North Norfolk. Only 80 miles or so. Plenty of time to explore my new environs I thought.
I’d counted without two important factors. As my friend Julie, a former Norfolk resident, told me, you should always double your normal estimated journey time for trips in Norfolk. Even the A roads tend to be single carriageway, so a heavy goods vehicle or a caravan (of which there are many at this time of year) can delay your trip, and so it proved on the A12. The first time everything ground to a halt it didn’t trouble me too much, but when it became habitual I turned to my radio to learn that my route coincided with thousands of music fans making their way to the Latitude Festival.
It was early evening by the time I checked into my accommodation leaving little time for making the most of the many beauty spots on this coastline so I wasted no time in heading out (though an empty stomach was also a factor to consider).
Knowing Blakeney Point to be a major nature reserve, and with Blakeney being a relatively easy point for me to join the coast road, I knew where I’d start, though to be honest I didn’t know what I was seeking. As I neared the village there was a dominant feature; and as it turned out deliberately so. The church of St Nicholas is perched atop one of the highpoint in this generally flat landscape and makes quite an impression with its imposing flint tower. A smaller tower at the east end didn’t strike me as significant so it remained unshot. The following day, from a vantage point off shore the value of the church, and many others visible along the coast, became clear. For the many fishermen of this region they were landmarks, and what’s more the secondary tower housed a lantern making it lighthouse as well as church.
To my untrained eye, the interior held little of significance beyond this 15th Century font. What a shame that I didn’t know to look for the examples of medieval graffiti that can also be found there.
I hurried on down to the quayside in the hope of greater interest.
It’s a strange place, where a loop of the River Glaven takes leave of its natural urges to break free from the estuary, head back inland to where a few boats are moored in the village, before returning to the North Sea. Consequently a tidal stretch of river runs alongside the quay where boats are moored in anticipation of the next cycle. As I arrived there was a rapid current already signalling the returning waters, so that I shot the same scene a number of times in case the changing light and changing conditions produced better results. As I write this I’ve just watched a TV programme that revealed 12 or so copies of the same scene by the artist Alfred Munnings, so I feel no shame in offering you repeated fare.
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?
The ten miles of shingle that forms Orford Ness is much more than just a long ridge of pebbles with a jeopardised lighthouse at one end. Nature has a way of claiming any environment given half a chance, and has a myriad of methods.
The gaps between the pebbles provide opportunities windblown sand and dirt to find a home, helping to stabilise the stones, retain moisture and provide nutrients to any plant or seed that should put down roots here. The salty air and lack of shelter require some specialisms of those plants but they exist. Naturally such plants are rarities for the conditions that support them are uncommon and fragile. Orford Ness is the second largest area of vegetated shingle in the UK, and the largest such shingle spit in Europe, so whilst it is owned by the National Trust, they must manage the impact of visitors very carefully.
Specialist plants bring specialist insects bring specialist birds… (I’m starting to sound like a Burl Ives song) but here the flora and fauna have an added bonus. A lack of people.
If you want to visit the site, you must do so on a designated National Trust ferry. These small boats carry about a dozen people and operate the outward journey at roughly twenty-minute intervals for about four hours each day. (You can do the maths). They then count back every return journey to ensure that no one overstays their welcome. The only permanent residents are the wardens of the nature reserve.
Spread those numbers across 570 hectares and they have very limited impact. That impact is restricted further by closing off parts of the Ness to visitors when the birds are breeding, and beyond this the Ness has its own unique way of persuading the curious photographer not to stray too far…
A couple of years ago my daughter Holly and I attended an unusual screening at Tyneside Cinema in which a film director was premiering his latest (and only) film.
The evening was in three parts. Firstly the film was shown, though soundtrack and narration were performed live from a spot to the left of the screen, then a leather armchair was manoeuvred to centre stage for the director to answer questions. Finally he returned to his console, strapped on a small keyboard and performed a short set of his greatest hits.
The director/writer/performer was Thomas Dolby, and the film was The Invisible Lighthouse, a tale of the role that this landscape had played in his childhood, replete with war heroes, UFO’s, an undercover operation, and in particular the Orfordness Light which was being decommissioned due to the increasing risk of it being swept away like so much of that coastline had before. Whilst the building itself was being left to the forces of time and tide, the light and ancillary equipment was to be removed because of the toxic impact it might have on the environment. Orford Ness is a nature reserve.
So here we are a couple of years later and that encroaching sea has yet to deal the fatal blow. The lighthouse is clearly visible from many directions, largely due to the otherwise unused land that surrounds it. There are reasons that so much of that land is unused and I will explore them in the next posting about the Ness but for now lets concentrate on the light.
Dolby’s tribute wasn’t the only expression of sadness at the passing of a local landmark (there has been a lighthouse here since 1792). An association was formed to look into ways to temporarily defend the structure from the sea until more detailed plans for its preservation could be agreed.
They needed to act swiftly as it was only expected to survive a further 6 or 7 years after decommissioning in 2013. An article in the Daily Telegraph in January 2013 pointed out that the tower was only 11 metres from the sea, and that four metres had been lost in the previous month alone.
18 months later and the building still stands.
So far so good.
The shingle spit of Orford Ness runs north to Aldeburgh, the town giving its name to the river rather than the reverse. Places like Doncaster (The Castle on the Don) and Rotherham (village on the Rother) take their name from the waterway running through them, but Aldeburgh means “Old Fort” so is independent of the River Alde (which as we’ve seen soon becomes the Ore anyway).
The origins of that fort are unclear, as no archeological work can reveal its history. We know that it was here in Tudor times, for this was a busy port where Sir Francis Drake had ships (including the Golden Hind) built. A must for a visitor interested in history such as myself you might think, and you’d be right but for one thing.
That shifting coastline once again.
The town, like some English Burano is colourful and quaint, but it’s very easy to see that it’s not quite all there.
Aldeburgh has plenty of attractions left, but with only limited time available I could only fully do justice to two. Aldeburgh Fish and Chips is supposedly one of the best in the UK (though I suspect the accolade may be self-awarded!) and I wasn’t disappointed, but on a slightly more cultural level I found the shingle spit rewarding as I walked in search of the Scallop, a large sculpture by Maggi Hambling that stands as tribute to Aldeburgh’s most notable former resident; Benjamin Britten.