Dynamic and ever shifting

The shingle spit from the north © Crown copyright

The shingle spit from the north

Orford Ness has a relatively short history - a mere few thousand years. As a landscape feature its development hardly shows in geological timescales, yet it has diverted a river, formed an estuary, created over 10 miles of coastline and over 2,000 acres of land. The fluid nature of the shingle is the secret of its dynamism.

Early history

Man first used the spit and its marshes for food - gathering eggs, fishing and grazing sheep and cattle. Later it became a haunt of smugglers and home to lighthouse keepers and coastguards.

17th-19th centuries

The strategic position of the Ness came to prominence in the naval wars with the Dutch and the French. The threat from Napoleon prompted defensive construction while cattle and sheep continued to graze.

Cloaked in secrecy

Laboratories 4 & 5 of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment

From 1913 Orford Ness was used as a military test site and closely guarded to prevent public access. Top secret experiments were conducted across both World Wars and into the nuclear age.

Most secret: Orford Ness 1913-1993

  • First World War

    In 1913 the War Department acquired a large part of the Ness to develop into airfields. This was to start a 70-year period of intense military experimentation. At the pioneering edge of early military aviation, Orford Ness was a hive of activity, working on all aspects of how to use a plane as a weapon.

  • Between the wars

    Continuing work established in the First World War, the bombing range established itself as the foremost ballistics testing facility in the country. Other work included experimental radio beacons and possibly the most important episode in the island's history - the birth of radar.

  • Second World War

    Despite its airfield moving to Wiltshire the bombing range continued ballistics testing. Firing trials took place to determine the vulnerability of aircraft and their components. The information gathered was used to improve aircraft and munitions design and helped many aircrew to make it home.

  • After 1945

    Lethality and vulnerability trials continued and also work on the aerodynamics of ammunition. Ballistics testing was extended to include rockets with jets firing from almost no altitude into the King's Marsh. Later on the Ness hosted one of its largest secrets, the huge Cobra Mist radar project.

  • AWRE

    At the height of the Cold War the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and the Royal Aircraft Establishment (AWRE) used Orford Ness for development work on the atomic bomb. Continuing all the way through the 1960s ominous half-buried concrete structures were built to contain these most lethal of weapons.

  • An unexploded bomb found on the beach © Andrew Capell

    RAF bomb disposal

    From the 1970s the Ness was home to RAF Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). Large quantities of munitions were destroyed on the Ness, an often noisy process. The last service personnel to be based on site left in 1987, opening the way for vandals and the foolhardy curious.  However, the Ness remained officially closed to the public, with the occasional trial on new equipment conducted as the need arose.

 © Paul Harris

The National Trust takes ownership

In 1993 the Ministry of Defence sold Orford Ness to the National Trust. By then the importance of the landscape of the spit and the wildlife it supported were becoming apparent, in particular the internationally rare and extremely fragile coastal vegetated shingle. The Trust now carefully protects its natural and historic features.