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Structures and buildings at Orford Ness

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

As you follow the various visitor trails through Orford Ness, you will pass many buildings. All the public buildings are open and within them you will discover the history of this special place.

Radar Receiver/NAAFI Building

This building was initially part of an Officer's Mess. In the 1930s, it became the receiver building for Radio Direction Finding (RDF) experiments, later called Radar. During the Second World War it was used as a centre for social activities and in the mid-1950s became the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) Building.

Recently it has become the main exhibition area and the home of ‘Island of Secrets’, a new display covering periods from First World War through to the Cold War.

Over the past few years, memories of people who worked on the Ness during its life as a top secret military testing site have been gathered. ‘Island of Secrets’ incorporates their words into a timeline of military experiments carried out in the 20th century. This display answers many intriguing questions such as ‘Can we put a gun in a plane?’, ‘How can you stop a bomber?’ and ‘Were they really dropping nuclear bombs in Suffolk?’. A real (decommissioned) atomic bomb is part of the display.

Visitors exploring the Island of Secrets exhibition at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
The Island of Secrets exhibition at Orford Ness | © National Trust Images/John Millar

The exhibition includes audio-visual content featuring the actual voices of those who worked here. The content can be accessed via your smart phone or the touch screen tablet inside the exhibition.

The NAAFI also houses interactive and static displays about the habitats, wildlife, nature conservation management and research work carried out here.

Information building

This former site headquarters, briefly the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) administrative base, became the security office and a telephone exchange. After being refurbished in 2022, the Information Building reopens in 2023 with displays about the National Trust's work on Orford Ness.

Bomb Ballistics

Built in 1933 to house advanced technical equipment, this was the centre of operations for the bombing range. In use for over 40 years, you can learn how the bombing range operated and evolved at the forefront of ballistics testing. Climb to the roof for a panoramic view across the shingle.

Black Beacon

Built to house an experimental radio apparatus, this enigmatic building housed a secret – a marine navigation beacon to the outside world, but in reality a homing beacon for military aircraft. This area was later the site of the AWRE technical HQ and telemetry station, which have been demolished. Climb to the upper-level viewing station for views across the sea and shingle.

Power House

Standing next to the Black Beacon, built four years after it, the generator inside supplied power to the 'marine navigation beacon'. The beacon had been powered from elsewhere on site – why did it need a generator now? A power cable also ran out to the newly built Bomb Ballistics building some distance away. Look inside to learn about the spit's natural history.

Control Room

Built in 1956, the Control Room functioned initially as the control centre for Laboratory 1, before becoming control room for the Hard Target Impact facility. This building is no longer open to the public but viewing from outside gives a good indication of the level of structural protection scientists thought was needed.

Laboratory 1 at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
Laboratory 1 at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

Laboratory 1

Also completed in 1956, this was the first of six atomic weapons test cells constructed by AWRE from Aldermaston. It was used for both mechanical and vibration testing and drop tests.

Self-guided trails at Orford Ness

Red route

The red route, mainly on tarmac roads, is open whenever the site is open to visitors. It passes through the site of the WWI airfield, now home to marshland birds. It then crosses Stony Ditch on the Bailey Bridge to the vegetated shingle habitats where some paths are shingle and uneven. The route totals 5 miles (8km) but can be shortened.

Blue route

Open seasonally once young birds have fledged from Airfield Marsh, the blue route is a peaceful extension of the red route. Although a concrete road this route can be flooded after heavy rain.

It will get you closer to some of the military structures used in the First World War, including those associated with radar. About 0.5 mile (1km) extension to red route.

Green route

Open once the breeding season is over, the green route will take you out into King's Marsh. This peaceful and remote trail will also take you close to the Cobra Mist site. This route is uneven and muddy in places.

There's no access to the Cobra Mist site itself, as it's not cared for by us, but there’s still lots to see. About a 3 mile (5km) extension to the red route.

Pagodas at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk

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