Orford Ness features in Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain

Michael Portillo explored the history of Orford Ness in a Channel 5 programme in April 2018. This was the second in a series series looking at some of the most intriguing and mysterious places in the country.

From the laboratories that once tested atomic weapons to the remnants of radar research and debris left behind from years of secretive experiments, the programme aimed to unlock some of the mysterious military history of Orford Ness.

Government owned since 1913 the site came into the care of the National Trust in 1993. Orford Ness has been welcoming visitors since 1994 and offers safe access around the site to many of the military buildings with their fascinating pasts.

Starting at a building called Cobra Mist, now privately owned, Michael Portillo meets some of the people who once called this place their office but had to keep their daily work a secret from friends and family, it was so shrouded in mystery.

Moving onto the weapons testing labs with their iconic influence on the Orford skyline, Michael discovered more about the stress testing of nuclear weapons, including Blue Danube, Britain’s first atom bomb. These tests took place in the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment on the Ness from the 1950’s to 1971.

Michael also revealed the story of Sir Robert Watson Watt, who was recruited to develop a ‘death ray’. It was never built, but his work on Orford Ness led to the development of radar—secret technology that changed the course of Second World War and the history of the world.

During filming, he interviewed some of the people who have contributed to the National Trust’s oral archive and met locals who worked here during those secretive research days. The memories shared by these people have already informed our interpretation of the history of the site and led to the publication in 2010 of ‘Most Secret, The Hidden History of Orford Ness’ by Paddy Heazell.

Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain featuring Orford Ness was aired on Channel 5 on Friday 27 April and may still be available on catchup.

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Previous art and media projects on Orford Ness 

Orford Ness has been the home and inspiration for many art projects. Several sound recordings and videos have captured the unique atmosphere of the Ness including the latest programme from Channel 5.