Secrets and Lies

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 fact is that the place has a sense of mystery, and not just because of the nearby Rendlesham UFO stories.  The Ness itself has maintained a number of closely guarded secrets.APW_4791_2_3

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._MG_2698

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._MG_2620_1_2-2-Edit

Then there is the small rectangular brick building a few hundred yards away.  A building that once housed a number of high-speed cameras overlooking an area of barren shingle.  _MG_2651_2_3

_MG_2644-PanoAn 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.

But visible through the heat haze rising from the stony surroundings is potentially something more interesting still.  APW_4910-EditThe testing laboratories of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.

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.APW_4756

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?

We all like a mystery.APW_4985-Edit


Natural Ness

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.APW_4772_3_4-Edit

Can you spot the plover?
Can you spot the plover?

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.

Here's that plover by the way
Here’s that plover by the way

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._MG_2588

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…

But that’s a story for tomorrow.APW_5075

The Very Visible Lighthouse

View from the Black Beacon to Orfordness Light

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.

Thomas Dolby, Boulder Colorado 2006
Thomas Dolby, Boulder Colorado 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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._MG_2615

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.


How Fortless

APW_4610_HDRThe 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.

Much of the town has been swept out to sea over the years, and a major flood in the 1950’s finally led to the construction of significant defences against the sea.  APW_4560

The town, like some English Burano is colourful and quaint, but it’s very easy to see that it’s not quite all there.

The Moot Hall, built in 1520, has a commanding position on the seafront, but it should be in the centre of town.  Still it makes a nice backdrop to a game of pétanque or some gentle model boating.APW_4650APW_4601_2_3-Edit

Aldeburgh has plenty of attractions left, but with only limited time available I could only fully do justice to two.  APW_4541Aldeburgh 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.


More from the Ore

When does a town become a village?

I’m not sure there’s a clear point where the reverse comes true, but it must happen as most towns have begun as smaller settlements that have grown or merged from historical villages.  My own birthplace of Sunderland grew from Wearmouth, Bishopwearmouth, and Monkwearmouth according to my primary school teachers, although the reliability of that particular source may be questionable.

But back to my original question.  I ask it because Orford has a distinctive feel of archetypal English village.  Country cottages abound, the community centre is hosting a photographic exhibit, local crafts are on sale, church and pub vie for attention as the centrepiece, and I’ve never seen so many hollyhocks!

Technically though, it is a town, and one which in Norman times clearly had greater significance.  The river Ore (or Alde) gave easy access to the sea, and protected by Orford Ness would have had some strategic importance in the decades that followed the conquest.  With France just across The Channel, East Anglia was not the backwater that it appears to be today.  Even before the Normans it must be remembered that the Angles who settled here gave England its name.  We were a popular destination for immigration even then.

But it was a Norman king who gave Orford greater status.  Henry II built a castle here to consolidate power, and if historical records are accurate it was quite a structure.  All that remains now are the original castle keep and the undulating earthworks that surround it.  Do these mounds conceal other elements of the castle’s defences or were they created as defences in themselves?  I’m not sure, but they maintain a space around the keep which gives the remaining edifice greater stature.

What there is is in remarkably good condition, from the basement with the inevitable well to the roof above the fourth floor.  It was this feature that I was in search of for it gave me my first views of my next objective.  The Orfordness Lighthouse. (And yes, when referring to the light, the words Orford and Ness do become one.  More shiftiness.)



Fording the Ore

Map showing Orford Ness, historical extent, an...
Map showing Orford Ness, historical extent, and sites of interest. Drawn by User:Jakew in Inkscape based on maps by English Nature. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My main objective in this trip to East Anglia was inaccessible by car.  I needed to be ferried across the water, and interesting water at that.  The gulls, the fishing boats, the salt air, the rise and fall of tide all point to this being the sea, but this is Orford, the crossing point of the River Ore and a strange crossing point at that.

The town has a long history but on the other side of the river there is no continuation of the settlement so why name the town after a crossing point?  And a ford at that?  Where is the road across the river?

The truth is that this is a strange and shifting landscape.  The land across the water is Orford Ness, a spit of shingle some 10 miles in length, which joins the mainland near Aldeburgh in the north.  There’ll be much more about this feature and its history in postings to come but the spit forms a barrier that forces the River Alde south in search of the sea, though just before Orford that river undergoes a name change to become the River Ore.  As you can see from the attached map the shape and extent of the spit changes regularly as the tides sculpt the shingle into new shapes.

So that water between me and my objective.  Alde? Ore? Sea?

No matter, it provides moorings for yachtsmen, a habitat for seabirds, rare vegetation (and free supplies of samphire), and of course a fantastic opportunity for a photographer.


Return to Mulberry*

APW_0141_2_3-EditDown the beaches
Hand in hand
Twelfth of never
On the sand
Then war took her away

Europa and The Pirate Twins 

I must apologise for bringing Thomas Dolby back to these pages with such indecent haste, but his showing/performance of The Invisible Lighthouse at the Tyneside Cinema resonated so strongly that I could not resist.

English: Orford Ness Lighthouse
English: Orford Ness Lighthouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film is a blend of autobiography (though whether the subject is Dolby or his beloved Suffolk coastline is a moot point) and documentary exploring the decommissioning of the lighthouse that illuminated his childhood bedroom.  In doing so he also explored the fragility and validity of human memory; his own recollection of a catastrophic Aldeburgh conflagration, being slightly undermined by his mother’s observation that he was in another county when it occurred!  He began to question how powerful the light had been since to his adult eye it seemed week and insignificant, though thanks to a 50-year-old copy of the Guinness Book of Records he was able to establish that the light had once been the brightest in the world.

His love of the North Sea coastline with its tidal erosion, wartime defences, UFO sightings  and piercing lighthouse beams may be romanticised but has long formed part of the mythology of his oeuvre.

APW_0180_1_2-EditPerhaps this partly explained the appeal that his songs hold for me. This is after all the same grey sea that I have looked on for years, facing the same invaders, ravaged by similar natural forces, and protected by red and white monolithic guardians. The beam of Souter Lighthouse was as potent in the mind’s eye of my youth as Orford Ness was in his, and indeed it also held the title of world’s brightest at some point in its history.  Souter has not troubled the night sky for 25 years and even its foghorn gave its last blast earlier this year.


I asked him how he might change the experience when he takes the film on tour in the US, for this seemed an essentially English experience. His response was that other than the addition of a second performer providing live foley (sound effects) he didn’t intend to change it at all, explaining that whilst the loss of the lighthouse was a real source of nostalgia for those neighbouring the North Sea, when taken further afield it becomes a metaphor for any significant artefact facing obsolescence, and therefore capable of generating a similar emotional response.

For me there was no need of metaphor for though the topography of the South Tyneside coast is very different to that of Suffolk, Souter may well face the same fate.  The Leas car park, one of a pair used by visitors to lighthouse (which like Orford Ness is managed by the National Trust), closed several months ago following a cliff fall, and it will never re-open.  It is currently being reclaimed by nature, as it awaits it’s sudden and inevitable descent to the shore.APW_0137

The power of the sea is clear, the coast is scattered with limestone stacks and sea-washed caves.

So what would you mourn if its loss was imminent?

When I was small
I was in love, in love with everything
But now there’s only you

*Cloudburst at Shingle Street