The amazing Orford Ness

Saturday 14 May 2016 – Orford Ness, Suffolk.

Wow, what a day today! It was so good I have had to make it a two post day. I love a day like this, and there should be/could be/would be more if I wasn’t so lazy or prone to prolonged bouts of procrastination. All I needed to do was to grab my camera and get out of the house, though it did help that I went somewhere amazing!

Last weekend I finally got around to buying a car. I have been pondering it for a while, but living and working London I have not had a desperate need to own one and if we did want to go away it is cheap enough to rent a car. However, there are always those things you need to do that require a car, and having to plan ahead to organise a rental, or book affordable train travel, meant we rarely did spontaneous trips out in to the country. Not having, or wanting to spend a vast amount of money on a car – I do hate them, I ended up buying a 2003 Lexus IS 300. With a three litre motor it is not the most economical or emissions friendly vehicle, but I wanted a car I could throw a mountain bike in the back of if I ever decided to do a riding trip. Thinking ahead, that is my motto 🙂


At the end of last year I bought a book about unusual ruins in the UK and there was mention of Orford Ness. The pictures in the book made it look interesting and as Suffolk is really easy to get to by car from NE London I decided to go and check it out.

Orford Ness is a 12 mile spit of land, pretty much entirely separated from the mainland by the River Alde and is accessed via a tiny ferry from the town of Orford. Orford is just under 100 miles from home, so a perfect distance for a first drive in a new car.

I left home pretty early, by my standards anyway, and made good time. Cruising down English country lanes shrouded in trees with dappled sunlight hitting the road has to be one of life’s real pleasures, I could have done this all day. I stopped once on the way to take a photo of a rape field. I think there is a law that requires all people who think of themselves as landscape photographers to stop and take a photo of a rape field at least once each year.


I arrived in Orford just after 10:00, when the ferry starts its regular run across to the Ness. Orford Ness, or at least this section of it, is managed by The National Trust, of which I am a member. They run a small ferry across the river and only allow 13 trips a day with a maximum of 12 people per trip. This reduces the impact of humans on the very fragile shingle environment.


In the 1920s and 1930s the site was used to test a wonderful new technology called radar, later, in the 1960s, it was a semi-secret location for atomic weapons research. Of course no bombs were tested there – these were all done in the US, but detonators and other components were designed and tested. Testing all these things like radar and detonators meant a heck of a lot of bombs were dropped here from the 1920s onwards. Wandering off the beaten track is not encouraged, and there are numerous signs warning of this.


It is also very popular with the birding community as there are a number of nesting sites across the marsh and shingle areas. Some of these areas are closed to the public at the moment while the birds are breeding, so only one of the three ‘walks’ is open today. 

The boat ride over to the Ness only takes 5 minutes, there were seven of us on the boat, when I was leaving the ranger on the island told me there had been just over 80 people there all day, perfect numbers for me. My first photo on the Ness, flat, empty and big big clouds overhead. I was thinking that this was going to be a great day.


The first few hundred yards are past some swampy waterways, those more interested in birds than I am spent a bit of time here while I carried on going, heading for a bridge over a river and on to the shingly side. I stopped at the information centre for a look around, there was some interesting photos and history in there, I am assuming this warning sign is an old one!


There is a concentration of old buildings here and a few rusting, decaying pieces of machinery are reminders of when this place was busy with men doing manly things with bombs and technology. A lot of it is behind signs barring entry, though all the fences have been taken down so the restrictions are just based on trust. I liked that, and decided to not breach that trust. 




I took a few photos from the bird watching hide, none of birds of course! I wanted to visit the ‘pagodas’. Remnants from when this was under the control of Atomic Weapons Research establishment (AWRE) and I was really looking forward to getting to them. They are one of the reasons I wanted to visit. They, and a lot of the scene here, remind me of the old computer game Doom.


There are paths that have to be followed to get around, as I said earlier there is a lot unexploded munitions on and under the shingle, and caution needs be taken at all times. These gates were leading off to one of the paths that was closed today, as always I was intrigued as to what was there.


From 1982 until 2011 the BBC World Service was broadcast to Europe from Orford Ness, and the transmission towers can be clearly seen further up the spit, past those gates.


The shingle area is covered in vegetation, some of it quite rare, another reason this is a protected site. The mix of the muted greys and browns of the shingle and the brighter colours of the grasses and wild flowers made for an interesting sight and hopefully I will get some photos that make the most of that variety.


My first stop was the bomb ballistics building; built in 1933 it was fitted with state of the art equipment to monitor the flight of bombs to help with designing aiming tables. The view from the top was really interesting, it was the only place that provided enough height to look down on the shapes in the shingle



The view from the inside was good as well.



I followed the red shingle road towards the black beacon for a while before turning off and heading towards the lighthouse.


The shingle is constantly being moved around by the sea and the weather, it almost appears to be laid out in waves, with vegetation growing on its crest. It was quite arresting. I was very interested to know (and still don’t) what the small square concrete pads are, there are a hell of a lot of them seemingly randomly placed.


There is a lot of old metal and track lying around, but not many exploded bombs – this one was conveniently located right next to the path.


The PO has been to most parts of the country, but I was surprised to find they had laid cables here, I guess they go to the lighthouse ?


The lighthouse is not managed by the National Trust, it is owned by a small local trust, who have open days, today was not one of those days, so I was unable to get in and have a look, but I expect the view from there is stunning. The light house and its neighbouring coast guard house just feel so isolated, as a bird flies they are probably only a kilometre from Orford, but the shingle and marsh and the river have them cut off, it feel like another world.


The light house is in danger of falling down now, the trust are trying to raise funds to save it. When you get round the far side you can clearly see why, the ground is almost completely subsided, the only thing holding this section together is the sewer.


Next to the lighthouse is a derelict building that was used as a coast guard lookout up until 1951, and finally abandoned in the 1960s.


The trail goes along the edge of the North Sea for a couple of hundred yards before turning inland towards the Black Beacon, built in 1928 to house an experimental new beacon.



I had a walk around looking for somewhere sheltered from the strong and cold wind so I could sit down and eat some lunch, but there was not a lot of opportunity so I just carried on going I liked the football sitting in the window of this building along with a pile of rubbish washed up by the sea.


Finally the path took a turn towards the old AWRE area, which I was really looking forward to exploring. I loved this gate, ensuring no-one passes along that road. It is a shame there is no longer any fence 🙂


The security fence has mostly been taken down, there are occasional fence posts and light poles still standing, and I particularly liked this one with its broken light arm laying at its foot.


There are a couple of interesting buildings here, this one covered in shingle for instance, there was no entry point though, but I have visions of a vast network of tunnels underneath the shingle, joining all these low, almost hidden buildings together.


Sadly, and to my disappointment there was no access allowed to the pagoda area 😦 I was a bit gutted by that to be honest. I guess I could have strayed in there for a sneaky look, but there a number of rangers around and I did not want to annoy anyone, and I do want to come back!


I cannot quite work out what this last building is, but you could at least get in the doorway and peer through into its rather damaged centre.


This photo almost sums up the Ness for me, darkness, dankness and decay in the buildings, and an almost arid nothingness outside. Like a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. Love it!


I stopped for lunch here, before turning round and walking back, mostly the way I came, to the ferry point. Stopping to give some grass and then take a photo of these lambs on the way.


While I waited for the ferry I had a chat with one of the National Trust volunteers. He told me about some organised photo tours that take place three times a year and explore some of the places closed to the general public. One of those tours is an over night visit in July and I managed to book myself on one of the final places once I got home. I am very excited about that!

Just before I left I took a photo of where I am heading next, once I am back on the mainland. Orford Castle.


I was on the Ness for about four hours. I took more photos there (as you can tell) than I have anywhere else in a very long time. It is a fascinating, interesting, glorious place. Make a visit !

For the first time in ages I took and used two lenses. I have got into a bad habit of just using the 16-35mm wide angle lens, and at the occasional gig the 50mm. Today I used the wide angle and a 70-200mm zoom, I really should use the 70-200 more, it is a brilliant, if very heavy lens and allowed me the chance to get different angles and views.  I want to improve my photography, so I should use all the tools I have to hand. 

What a fantastic day, and it was only mid afternoon!

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Wannabe writer and photographer. Interested in travel and place. From Auckland, New Zealand.

3 thoughts on “The amazing Orford Ness”

  1. Glad to hear you enjoyed it here. Went there myself about 6 weeks ago (and also went to Orford Castle, which it sounds like you did too).

    At least some of those Concrete Pads you refer to where I think where they put the “high speed” cameras, these would all photograph bullets flying etc, so they got a detailed picture of it’s trajectory.

    It’s a shame to see the Lighthouse so close to the edge now. I had a discussion about it with one of the NT wardens. They told me they were offered to buy it when it was decommissioned but declined because of the Mercury inside (the light used to “float” on a bed of mercury), but subsequent searching suggests all the Mercury was removed by Trinity House when it was decommissioned, so I am not sure what the background is there. Hence the Lighthouse was then purchased by a private individual. From what I gather, the relationship he has with the NT is rather “frosty”, because he wants to be able to open it up to more than the 150 per day the NT allows. In addition (as you saw) he wants to protect it from erosion, but the NT oppose this, they want nature to be left to take it’s course. Sadly from I gather it is expected this year will be the last the lighthouse is open – I think even the owner now concedes it is unlikely to last another winter, despite the work he has done to try to protect it.

    I look forward to hearing about your return visit to see inside some of the other buildings.

    It is not possible (legally) I think to walk from Aldborough. Signs (from the NT) prohibit access beyond a certain point (although it seems to be ignored by fisherman, so I do not know if they enforce it).

    1. Hi Jon, Thanks for that update, it is always good to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, and the camera pads make perfect sense now! It is a real shame about the lighthouse, so many different priorities, ideas and agendas. I guess we are lucky that people do care about these things!

      There will certainly be an update when I go back, and I expect many more photos!

      I am planning on writing up Orford Castle some time this week, the photo editing and the writing seem to take as long as the walking and photography 🙂

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