The early history of Orford Ness

Orford Castle and King's Marsh Orford Ness

Salt-marsh built up behind the shingle spit as it formed, and eventually local people used these areas for grazing. This could have started long before records began, but some time in the medieval period walls were built around the marshes to control and eventually exclude the tidal river water.

Man moves onto the Ness

Henry II built the castle in Orford village and it's likely that he is the king referred to in the name of southern marshes, the 'King's Marshes'.

Mysterious and dangerous

The lonely and bleak spit of land became the haunt of poor folk collecting gull's eggs for food, fishermen and the marshmen who tended the cattle and sheep. Strange tales arose, most notably the famous Orford mere-man fished out of the river and a winged crocodile-beast that attacked boats. The spit and sandbanks that lie off it were deadly to mariners and many lost their lives - over 30 ships were lost in one great storm in 1627. The problem was solved by a series of lighthouses, which stood on the Ness, the last survior of which stood until it was desmantled in 2020.


Smuggling was rife along the creeks and estuaries of the Suffolk and Essex coasts. Remote and uninhabited, the spit was a natural haunt for smugglers such as Margaret Catchpole and William Laud. Their story was immortalised in the semi-fictional book Margaret Catchpole, written by the Rev. R. Cobbold.
Revenue men, forerunners of the coastguard, patrolled and an early beach-launched lifeboat, a revenue cutter and later a coastguard lookout were also established close to the lighthouse.