back to article Orford Ness: Military secrets and unique wildlife on the remote Suffolk coast

An isolated spit of land on the Suffolk coast, so narrow that in places you can cast a stone from one side to the other, seems an unlikely place to find the remnants of nearly a century of advanced scientific military research, but that's exactly what you will discover if you visit Orford Ness. Take the brief ferry trip across …

  1. Korev Silver badge

    More please

    A very interesting article

    one for Mr Taylor -->

    1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

      Re: More please

      Indeed. I used to think that BOFH was the best reason for coming here, but I was wrong - it's these articles. As the man says, more of this please.

      1. David Given

        Re: More please

        Is there a compendium on squashed trees available from any vendor of such abominations? Because I think I'd rather like one (for a friend, naturally).

        1. Killfalcon Silver badge

          Re: More please

          I found one on Amazon:

    2. LeahroyNake

      Re: More please

      Same here, more of this please.

      Sometimes an upvote just doesn't seem enough.

    3. Sartori

      Re: More please

      Completely agree, love these articles, very interesting!

  2. Oh Matron!


    Has an abundance of Military based research and flight, what with Martlesham, Bawdsey, Parham, Bentwaters and Orford Ness, and the often overlooked RAF Woodbridge, with its "incident":

    Many other sites can be walked around too. I spent may an afternoon walking around the remnants of

    1. hammarbtyp

      Re: Suffolk.....

      If you want a two for one, I recommend the Bawdsey Radar museum as well. Its only small, but well run and a good representation of a home front radar station (it is just a pity the mast is not an original, but a modern mobile phone one. The original I was told would of been far larger)

  3. Tom 38

    While in Orford

    Get some bread from Pump Street Bakery, best sourdough in Suffolk.

    Have lunch at the Kings Head at the top of the hill - the Jolly Sailor is good for a drink, but the food isn't as good.

    Check out the castle, 12th Century Norman, very nice.

    Quick detour via Snape Maltings for some artsy craftsy stuff, check out the Maltings concert hall.

    Check out the Tide Mill in Woodbridge on your way out, one of the few working tide mills left in the UK.

    Skip Sutton Hoo, if you want to see the good stuff you need to go to the British Museum in London. If you really like mounds of dirt, check it out.

    This post brought to you by the Suffolk Coastal tourist board, London division.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: While in Orford

      I disagree on Sutton Hoo. They're supposedly doing something about the field of mounds - which you basically walk around and it's ooh look a bunch of mounds.

      But the visitors centre is excellent - and they've still got a bunch of the original stuff (despite what's on loan to the British museum at any particular moment). But they've also got some really good mockups of the inside of the mounds - as they would have been just before being sealed up. I rather liked the museum - though it's not somewhere you'd want to spend a whole day or take kids.

      I like the idea of seeing a tide mill though - will have to suggest it next time I'm up that way.

  4. RichardB

    Now we know

    What NIVEA stands for.

    NIght Varnish East Anglia

    1. Korev Silver badge

      Re: Now we know

      NORWICH - kNickers Off Ready When I Come Home

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nobody is quite sure what it was originally built for.

    Concrete ring? Black Beacon? Cobra Mist?

    Perhaps something to do with the Laundry...?

    1. sandman

      Re: Nobody is quite sure what it was originally built for.

      Probably not for the Laundry, no pentacle inside the circle. ;-)

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Nobody is quite sure what it was originally built for.

      Concrete ring? Black Beacon? Cobra Mist?

      And don't forget white elephants...

    3. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Re: Nobody is quite sure what it was originally built for.

      Nah, overflow holding for the Dunwich* horrors just up the coast. They calmed down a bit after Sizewell was built near by, thus providing them warm water. Plus HMPs Hollesley Bay & Warren Hill took custody of some of the local ne'er-do-wells.

      Which at one point may have included a pre-teen-ish me, who used to spend happy summers kayaking around the Alde. Orford Ness was a kinda odd top secret site given it's proximity to tourists, so also attractive to a young me who wanted to know what the secret stuff was all about. Some chaps in a patrol dinghy politely told me to paddle off, so I did.

      You could see the radar installation from the beach, and I may have some pics of it somewhere.. Basically looked like a circle of tall antennas & the kind of thing that could have served as a Mothra pen. Been back a few times as an adult, mainly as there's a couple of landing stations in that neck of the woods & did the tour.. One of the most striking bits was one of the buildings apparently being where the AWE did nuclear bake-offs to see how well they'd last in a fire. Sans physics packages, but sometimes with a fair amount of plain'ol high explosives in place.

      Biggest threat nowadays is probably from the locals (ok, rich incomers) who'll complain mightily if you don't park in the right places.

      *Dunwich being something of a disappointment when I learned it wasn't the Lovecraft version. Used to have a mighty fine chip shop on the beach, but also an early example of global warming. Dived it a couple of times, but not a lot to see given general water visibility & sediment.

      1. Tom 38

        Re: Nobody is quite sure what it was originally built for.

        Dunwich being something of a disappointment when I learned it wasn't the Lovecraft version. Used to have a mighty fine chip shop on the beach, but also an early example of global warming.

        Dunwich doesn't really have anything to do with global warming, the erosion of Dunwich is what gives us Orford Ness, and is down to longshore drift, where the prevailing wind causes waves to strike the beach at an angle, dragging loose material down the beach and depositing it. Over a long period of time, this erodes the beach enough that it reaches the cliffs, and erodes them too causing a collapse. That material is then dragged down the beach as well. At one point, the River Alde came out at Aldeburgh, now it comes out ~12 miles away. Wikipedia has a nice map with points showing the lengthening of the spit over time.

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: Nobody is quite sure what it was originally built for.

          Dunwich doesn't really have anything to do with global warming

          Sorry, that was me being sarcastic.. And also didn't help the other grand city of the Eastern Angles, Norwich.. Which also succumbed to the combination of longshore drift and North Sea storms & surges. Nowadays, this is naturally blamed on global warming rather than normal hydrological processes.

          At one point, the River Alde came out at Aldeburgh, now it comes out ~12 miles away. Wikipedia has a nice map with points showing the lengthening of the spit over time.

          Yup.. But there were also human factors, ie when rivers ceased to be as useful for trade & transport, they weren't maintained as well leading to nature taking it's course and silting. A bit like the Lord's Deben, which is far less navigable than it was when I was a kid. And then of course there's modern land management thinking that restoring wetlands is a good thing, even if that increases flood risk and related issues like the ague..

          Also I think some of the changes to the Alde were down to the MoD pulling out, so sea defences not being maintained.

      2. Robert Sneddon

        Re: Nobody is quite sure what it was originally built for.

        One of the most striking bits was one of the buildings apparently being where the AWE did nuclear bake-offs to see how well they'd last in a fire.

        AWRE (as it was) had plans in place to destroy nuclear weapons in a hurry if some impolite invaders from points East got to the bunkers holding them in West Germany before the weapons could be repatriated (or used). The equipment comprised a strap of thermite compound wrapped around the middle of the bomb casing, a time fuze initiator and a pair of running shoes. It's possible such contingency procedures were tested at Orford (minus the Sparkly Stuff, probably).

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: Nobody is quite sure what it was originally built for.

          Heh, not sure I'd fancy being in those shoes. Or in West German shoes in general if the Cold War had ever turned hot. Most of my time there looks like it was spent post-AWRE, so why I don't remember any loud bangs.

          It's a nice place to visit though, either as a family or couple looking for a nice, quiet place with things to do. Thorpeness is an interesting place given it was largely built by the Ogilvies as a holiday resort, complete with Peter Pan's boating lake ie the meare. That has boat & kayak hire and is a safe space for kids (like me!) to learn canoeing & kayaking, then there's the Alde and a lot of wetlands to paddle around & explore. Plus other scenic things to enjoy, like the Ness, ruins of old churches/monasteries, golf, shopping & eating etc. It's a good place to go chill & relax.. plus the beer's good, it being Adnam's country :)

    4. ectel

      Re: Nobody is quite sure what it was originally built for.

      When I went on to the Ness last year there was a NT Guide who was involved in doing research on the activities on the Ness (his job before it closed was firing nuclear weapons casings in to a concrete wall at about 200mph - simulating a drop from low level that hit something sideways)

      He said that they had begun to find out some information about the mystery ring, that the ring was footings for a rotating thing (wheels run on the ring) probably some sort of antenna.

      Can I recommend this book as a most informative history of the Ness?

      1. adam 40 Silver badge

        Re: Nobody is quite sure what it was originally built for.

        One of these maybe?

  6. Anonymous Custard

    Bombs away

    but couldn't tell if it was a flock of birds or a squadron of bombers.

    Although to be fair, I'm not sure I'd want either shitting on me from a great height...

    Great article though, as usual from this series.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Bombs away

      The Russian long-range nuclear bomber of the period was the Bear - so even worse. Especially for anyone based in a woodland environment...

  7. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

    You got one bit wrong

    The UK still had our own designed gravity nuclear bombs after going to submarine launched missiles for the strategic deterrent.

    But also we bought in the US missiles, but still build our own warheads.

    Things did change with Trident though. With Polaris we had UK warheads on a US missile - and in the 70s we spent rather a lot of money on upgrading to Chevaline. It wasn't quite a MIRV system - but was a set of decoys and multiple warheads that re-entered together then split up - so could hit multiple targets at once - but presumably only reasonably close together ones. But that was designed to deal with the Russian ABM defences around Moscow and upgrades to them for the next few years. It was cheaper than designing the whole MIRV thing.

    However it was decided that this wouldn't cut the mustard for Trident. So the choice was either to dust off all the Cheveline research and re-do the whole thing, or to ask the US if we could buy their tech and sit our warheads in their existing system. Which was what was agreed - as it was cheaper for us, and they got cash to off-set the reseach costs they'd already spent.

    1. hoofie

      Re: You got one bit wrong

      From what I've read of it Chevaline was a major technical achievement but also a huge industrial undertaking. We had to invent technologies the UK had never dealt with before.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: You got one bit wrong


        If I remember Peter Hennessey's book right it cost about £5 billion over ten years in the 70s. And that's not adjusted for inflation.

        The Labour cabinet that met for 48 hours (!!!!!) under Wilson to try and avoid calling in the IMF was trying to make total cuts of £1bn. So we're talking serious moolah!

        Spoiler alert! The Treasury got its forecasts wrong, and the IMF loan wasn't needed. Oops!

  8. Ivan Headache

    One Christmas when I was a lad

    I was was given a book called 'The Runners of Orford' by Tyler Whittle.

    It was a typical children's thriller about 2 kids convinced that the strange Eastern European people living near the ness were Russian spies.

    I remember enjoying it very much and deciding that one day would goto Orford. Fifty five years later and I still haven'y been.

    Thanks for the article. Brought all those memories flooding back.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: One Christmas when I was a lad

      Oooooh that brings back memories of another book featuring the 'Ness' - children's book probably published in the early to mid 1970s. Group of kids see a UFO over Orford, then the action relocates to Dartmoor - can't remember the title, but I loved it when I was about 10 - anyone???

      1. Pigeon Post

        Re: One Christmas when I was a lad

        Sounds like 'Saucers over the Moor' by Malcolm Saville, but that action starts in Rye in Sussex before moving to Dartmoor.

  9. RobThBay


    What was that about a German V3?

    1. ectel

      Re: V3?

      Long range gun , Barrel very long with additional "Booster charges" along it

      A concept that next saw light of day with Sadam Husain's Super Gun

      1. Paul Kinsler

        Re: V3?

        Hmm, the Americans had one for launching high altitude probes, ...

        ... as seen on the not-infrequent repeats of "Abandoned Engineering" on one of the lesser freesat channels...

        1. CAPS LOCK

          See also the Gerald Bull biopic...


  10. pxd

    Been there, done the tour - excellent article

    I have visited Orford Ness and would like to concur with everything written here by AT - it is a fine area overall, and a visit to Orford Ness is a great day out. Many thanks for an excellent article. pxd

  11. pinkmouse

    Allow more time. I went round a couple of years ago, just on the one route as the others were closed for nesting, spent four hours there and could easily have doubled that.

    Fascinating place.

  12. BBRush

    Good article!

    As a Suffolk native until a few years ago, I approve of this and recommend Orford Ness to anyone making the journey east. It can be a bit barren in later months, but that part of the coast is really quite stunning.

    While in Orford, do make time to go to the smokery there. Their smoked eels are epic.

  13. phuzz Silver badge

    "The Ministry of Defence seemed unsure what to do with the site, a situation made more complex by the bullets, rockets, shells and bombs scattered about from 60 years of weapons tests. One idea that thankfully never got off the drawing board was to build a nuclear power station there."

    Down at Hinkley Point, they have the problem that the bay where the cooling water will come from was for many years a bombing range, and so far they've had to call the bomb disposal team in three times.

  14. /dev/null


    Never seen it called that - more usually called NIVO ("Night Invisible Varnish Orfordness"). And it wasn't the RFC's original standard camouflage colour - that was P.C.10 (although whether that was actually green or brown has been debated...)

  15. tiggity Silver badge

    National Trust

    Obviously not bothered about preserving any of teh buildings infrastructure.

    The only buildings they care about preserving are aristocrat stately homes (essentially a charity for down at heel country house owners - typically NT takes over, & some of property open to public but family allowed to stay in the house (essentially in perpetuity passes through descendants) and have some say in what happens with house & gardens use.

    So, recent buildings (and not made of particularly rugged materials and having no aristo connection) have no chance of NT being bothered about preservation.

    NT wildlife preservation opens up a can of worms as plenty of NT land allows fox and stag hunts to pass through (and lots of evidence of instances of fox hunts not following a "trail" * but that full on illegal fox hunting occurs on NT land) - and some NT land supports "game" shooting, lots of low wildlife quality NT grassland heavily grazed by sheep instead of being allowed to develop a more complex scrub then woodland ecosystem (and not even bothering to make into more wildlife friendly wildflower rich meadows which is compatible with sheep, just needs less sheep and a bit of effort).

    Though in some cases, when they explicitly manage for wildlife (and so do ban hunts & shoots, don't have inappropriate grazing) they do an OK job of ecosystem management.

    * Amazing that all these hunts do "trail" hunting - but you never see a trail being laid, and so often the hunts end up in areas that no sane person would lay a trail anywhere near (e.g. fields that are private land t& have explicitly barred hunt from, areas of rural housing where inhabitants have lots of pets around etc.)

  16. Killfalcon Silver badge

    "Defending the lighthouse and Cobra Mist sites from the depredations of the sea runs counter to the National Trust's wildlife-focused conservation plans and reasonable belief that if it picks a fight with the North Sea it will lose."

    Nice turn of phrase there.

    Good article, I do like that the Reg puts effort into this sort of thing.

  17. short a sandwich

    Shingle Street

    Worth a detour if you're on the way to Bawdsey for some peace and quiet.

  18. Grinning Bandicoot

    RE: Concrete ring and other stuff

    Check on Wikipedia. My first thought on seeing the circle was that of a Wullenberger site and without knowing the year of construction might have been part of the Battle of the Atlantic.

    Cobra Mist appears from the description to be similar to the Duga system ( which makes me curious as to the frequency and pulse coding. CONSPIRACY ALERT: Counter mind control program by DoD/MoD!

    NOTE: Living within a 100 miles of a PAVE PAW site I have to be careful when mobile not transmit on the 0.75m band; however, there exists a strong internal need to know more on Cobra Mist now.

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