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History of Orford Ness

The abandoned Pagodas, nuclear testing buildings at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
The abandoned Pagodas, nuclear testing buildings at Orford Ness | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

From a military testing site to an internationally significant nature reserve, discover the history of Orford Ness from the medieval times to the present day.

In the medieval period, 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.

Henry II built the castle in Orford village in the 12th century and it's likely that he is the king referred to in the name of the southern marshes, the 'King's Marshes'.

Threats at sea

The lighthouse was attacked by French privateers in the 17th century and a naval skirmish – the Battle of Orford Ness – featured during the wars with the Dutch. Part of the larger St James Day Fight (Battle of North Foreland) fought on the 25 and 26 July 1666, the Dutch lost 20 ships with only one English casualty, the Resolution.

Fear of invasion

The many flat beaches and deep estuaries of Suffolk make it an ideal invasion target. The spit provides an effective invasion defence, but where it joins the main land at Aldeburgh is a potential weak spot. The great Martello tower at Slaughden where the spit just touches the mainland is the largest and most northerly of the coastal towers built against a potential Napoleonic invasion.

Grazing sheep and cattle

The marshes continued to be used for grazing. Mussel beds were dug in the salt marshes in Stony Ditch and by the end of the 19th century, two marshmen's houses stood on the spit – one in King's Marsh and 'The Hazard' near Slaughden.

Orford Ness in the 20th century

The First World War

A large part of Orford Ness was purchased by the War Department in 1913, with the whole of the site acquired soon after. 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.

Between August 1913 and 1916, the southern half of King's Marsh was drained and levelled to form airfields to the left and right of the road. The site was ready to receive its first aircraft in 1915. This was perhaps the most significant turning point in the history of the Ness, being the start of 70 years of intense military experimentation. As well as leaving a variety of physical traces, it also gave Orford Ness what has been described as 'the mystique of secrecy'.

Orford Ness was put on a 'care and maintenance' order until 1924 when it was reopened as a satellite of the Aeroplane and Armaments Experimental Establishment at nearby Martlesham.

Rotating Wireless Beacon, known simply as the Black Beacon at Orford Ness National Reserve, Suffolk
The Black Beacon at Orford Ness | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Military experiments

The enigmatic Black Beacon building was constructed by local builders WC Reade of Aldeburgh in 1928 for the Royal Aircraft Establishment, to house an experimental 'rotating loop' navigation beacon. Part funded by Trinity House and reported to be a marine navigation beacon, the Air Ministry also funded work on the development of an aircraft location system based on this early innovation. The Orford Ness equipment was probably an early homing beacon for aircraft that formed part of this work.

Bomb Ballistics building

The current Bomb Ballistics building was built in 1933 to house state of the art equipment used to record the flight of bombs. This information was used to improve their aerodynamics and provide data for the production of the tables used to refine bomb aiming. The equipment was steadily improved over the years, most notably from the 1950s for the development of the atomic bomb.

Radio Direction Finding (RDF) – RADAR

Perhaps the most significant experiments on Orford Ness took place between 1935 and 1937, after Robert Watson-Watt and his team arrived on 13 May 1935 to create the 'Ionospheric Research Station'. This was in fact a cover for the research and development of the aerial defence system, which was later became known as radar.

Lethality and vulnerability testing

Between 1938 and 1959, a majority of the firing trials were concentrated in the northern airfield, part of which is now reedbed. The firing trials were mainly concerned with determining the vulnerability of aircraft and aircraft components to attack by various projectiles. Whole aircraft or individual parts such as fuel tanks, oxygen tanks or running engines were subjected to carefully controlled and recorded simulations of attack.

The Plate Store

Connected with the 'lethality and vulnerability' firing trials, the Plate Store was home to a number of extraordinary experiments during the 1940s. The plates in question were sheets of experimental armour plate or paper targets. Initially built to house the plate armour, the end wall was later removed, and various types of projectiles were fired from smooth bore field guns into plates mounted inside the building to test their effectiveness.

Rocket range

During the 1950s the King's Marsh was used as an experimental range for recording the flight paths of air-launched rockets. Fired from above the airfields the rockets were recorded by a series of cameras triggered by infrared sensitive cells, which could detect the rocket as it passed over.

Pagodas at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
Pagodas at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Atomic bomb testing

Between 1953 and 1966 six large test cells and most of the other buildings were built to carry out environmental tests on the atomic bomb. These tests were designed to mimic the rigours to which a weapon might be subjected before detonation, and included vibration, extremes of temperature, shocks and G forces.

Although no nuclear material was said to be involved, the high explosive initiator was present and a test failure might have resulted in a catastrophic explosion. For this reason, tests were controlled remotely and the huge labs were designed to absorb and dissipate an explosion in the event of an accident.

Cobra Mist

In 1968 work started on the top-secret Anglo-American System 'over-the-horizon' (OTH) backscatter radar project, code-name 'Cobra Mist'. The Anglo-American project, whose main contractor was the Radio Corporation of America, was set up to carry out several missions, including detection and tracking of aircraft, detection of missile and satellite vehicle launchings, fulfilling intelligence requirements and providing a research and development testbed. In early 1973, a joint US/UK decision was made to terminate operations at Orford Ness, based on economic and 'other considerations'.

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.

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.

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