Orford Ness Photography Tour. P3 – in and out of windows.

Saturday 16 July 2016 – Orford Ness, Suffolk.

This will be the final post from the 24 hour photography tour I attended on Orford Ness in Suffolk. For information about the Ness you will need to track back a couple of posts. If you like landscapes that are utterly different to the typical English rolling countryside then I recommend you visit Orford Ness. If you want to get access to the places I have photographed here then you will need to join a tour. Space on these tours is very limited and you will need to book via the National Trust Orford Ness web page. I believe 2016 tours are all booked up.

This last post has some images I took that were frames by windows and doors.  I have been experimenting a bit more with the use of framing in my photography, using trees and buildings to frame the centre of the image. The broken windows and window frames in the buildings at Orford Ness allow for some interesting framing opportunities. Next time I will use the tripod and get a bit squarer on the frame – if I can. Using my tripod is a habit I really need to get in to…

Lab 2 from Lab 4


Lab 4 from Lab 5


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The aerials of Cobra Mist



As I have mentioned a few times in these three posts, Orford Ness is an amazing place to visit, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in photography, landscapes or the small weird or unusual parts of English History. Thanks National Trust for keeping it open, and thanks to the volunteers who look after this wonderful place.

Orford Ness Photography Tour. P2 – bits and pieces.

Saturday 16 July 2016 – Orford Ness, Suffolk.

This is part two of a three part post of images taken at an overnight photography tour to Orford Ness. I really enjoyed Orford Ness. It is my kind of place; flat, wind exposed, a bit bleak and ‘flat’ coloured, with the added bonus of visually and historically interesting buildings. The photo tour was very enjoyable, I learnt a bit and took more photos in the 24 hours I was there than in any 24 period before.

I particularly enjoyed taking photos of some of the detail inside the buildings, rusty and faded light fittings, old electrical boxes and cables. Not the sort of things I normally take photos of, I am a wide angle lens big sky kind of guy, so this was a new challenge for me.

I was looking for lines and angles, rust and little bits of detail in the decay. There was not a lot to see as most of the buildings have been stripped of saleable material, you can see this in the cut off cables in some of the rooms. It would make for a good movie location. Taking an organised photo tour of the ‘Ness allowed us to access some of the buildings that a day visitor is restricted from entering, or even getting near to.


One of the first rooms we entered had these wonderful switches on the wall, I have no idea what they controlled, the cryptic labelling made them even more interesting.




This rusting out radiator was one of favourite things in the whole ‘Ness and was on the wall below the switches.


As we walked around the various buildings I was looking for straight and clean lines to contrast against the rusty old switches and cables.







The switches themselves were interesting too. What did they do?




Most of the cabinetry had been removed, though there were the odd one left here and there. I like the birds nest in this one.




The last building we visited was the old Navy, Army, Air Force Institute ‘NAAFI’ building. It is being turned into a museum, and is not yet open to the public, but it did have one of the old high speed cameras they used to record explosions and other experiments.


I will finish this post with another one of the lovely of radiators.


There will be one last set of images after this one. Things taken through windows and doors.


Orford Ness Photography Tour. P1

Saturday 16 July 2016 – Orford Ness, Suffolk.

Steve and I were meeting the rest of the group and the tour leaders at 5:00pm at the National Trust office on the pier in Orford. We left Leiston Abbey with what seemed like plenty of time, but only arrived a few minutes early. One of the other group members was waiting when we got there, I think most people were impacted a bit by traffic, one guy was really late, traffic ruined his day.

There were eight of us on the tour, two photo guides and six punters, all middle aged blokes :). This photo is by Steve.


National Trust run one overnight tour to Orford Ness a year, though a number of photography and other groups can book private trips. This is the only way to see the area after hours and the only way to get access to some of the closed off sections. To enter the buildings that were open to us we all had to wear hard hats. Once inside you can see why, a number of the buildings had material dangling loosely from their open and exposed roofs. As these buildings get more and more run down and dangerous they will slowly close and one day there will be no access at all.

For more about Orford Ness, check out my last visit here.

This was to be a 24 hour stay, it was a photography based tour, and the aim was to make as much of the available light, and dark, as possible. We were out and about from soon after we arrived and had been briefed what we will be doing until a late dinner about 9:30pm, back out again till midnight and up again at 4:30 for sunrise. I took more photos in those 24 hours then in any previous 24 hour period. I am not a prolific photographer – my habit is to take one, maybe two images of something and then move on. I took about 350 photos, an extraordinary amount for me. There was a lot to see and do! I am going to split the tour into two or three posts, I will see how I go. This first post will be a general overview of the 24 hours.

After finding bunks and unpacking our kit we jumped into a National Trust Land Rover and an electric buggy and headed off on a tour of the site. Other than the guides I was the only person who had been here before. The first place we visited was through the no-entry for the public gate and up to the far end of the Advanced Weapons Research Areas (AWRE) to labs 4 and 5, the ‘pagodas’ and the places I wanted to see the most – I was very excited to know we were going to be able to see inside these places.


The pagodas were built in the 1950s to test components used in nuclear weapons, mainly the triggers and detonators. There was never any acknowledgement that any fissionable material was ever on the Ness, but of course, what secrets the M.O.D. have will not be revealed for a long time yet. The roof was designed to collapse and seal the room below in the event of an explosion, I think they look very mysterious. Brutalism in the architectural and the real sense.


There is very little left to see inside any of the structures, when the M.O.D. left in the 1970s the site was savaged by metal collectors and scavengers and most things of value was stripped out. There are still a few bits and pieces and this made it quite interesting from a photographic point of view. I took a lot of pictures of the fittings that remained and these will make up my next post.


We spent a few minutes looking around one of the pagodas before heading off to the far end of the site to the north of the light house to have a look around one of the more desolate areas, and to check out a good location for tomorrow’s sunrise. I was just taken with the flatness of the land and the big, big expansive sky above it – a sky filled with lovely clouds.


As it drew closer to the end of the day we headed back to the hut and took some photos back towards Orford and its castle. The sunset was not particularly brilliant to start with, though there was some late flare that lit the sky as we were eating our evening meal.

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I am not often out in the ‘golden hour’, that period of time around sunset and sunrise, when the light is mellow and filtered. It is the landscape photographers best light, and I never use it. Don’t ask me why – perhaps now I am not working and have a car I could nip out to the forest in the evening?


Once it had gotten dark we headed out again to take some long exposure night images, there was a bit too much cloud around to get much moonlight – or any star trails. This is a one minute exposure towards the lights of Harwich. I haven’t done any night photography for ages and really enjoyed it, though it was very windy so not the best of conditions, even with a fairly sturdy tripod.


It was past midnight when we headed back to the hut for some ‘sleep’ before a 4:30am start, coffee and then back out for the sunrise. Like the sunset the night before it was not a great glowing light fest, though it was good to be out in the early morning light.

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This photo of me is by John, one of the tutors, I was probably taking the above photo.


After breakfast we went back up to the AWRE area for a more detailed explore of the buildings. We were split into two groups making it easier for us all to get time in each location and look for images. Being on a tour means we could ignore the signs and enter some of these spaces, some were deemed too unsafe to enter.


I love these buildings, I love their shape, and the harsh design and build and I love their location on this flat, desolate and ancient area.

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I spent a lot of time picking out the small details, the photos will make up the bulk of the next post. I was looking for industrial shapes, and of course a bit of decay! Like this extractor pipe.



Most of the day was spent out and about, the light wasn’t brilliant, it was a bit bright for my taste, I would have preferred more dark cloud – but at least it was not uber bright and sunny.


Though we were looking for a patch of bright sun to get the shadows from the failing roof structures in the back of laboratory 1. Luck was briefly on our side! You can see why you need a hard hat to enter these places. We were not allowed into the main space as those ducts are hanging quite precariously. Interestingly; that ground looks like it is a flat floor, but on the far side is a 12 foot deep pathway about a yard wide. It is impossible to see, only old photos of the site reveal it. If you wandered over there you would disappear into the mire, possibly to never be seen again.

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The interior of this building was excellent for photos, there was a surprisingly large amount of ‘stuff’ left inside. We spent a lot of time discussing what it was for. The shell of the centrifuge was quite obvious, but what it was for is unknown.

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Another of the buildings we visited had a centrifuge we could see in to. It is all so interesting, yet so little is publicly known about what actually happened in these buildings. We know that many things were invented or tested on Orford Ness, that experiments with things like high speed cameras, radar, weapon systems and explosive triggers for nuclear bombs happened here. But what really went on ?  One day we will know.


All too soon it was mid-afternoon and time to pack up and head homeward. Steve and I left with the early group, some of the others continued on to see things like the lighthouse, which I had visited before. I was keen to get back to London as I have to be up at 5:00am tomorrow to go to Spain. I needed some sleep 🙂

It was a very enjoyable and educational trip, the guides/tutors were great and my fellow photographers were a good bunch to hang out with and I look forward to seeing some of the photos that other have made, and how they may have seen Orford Ness.

I might go next year!


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!