If you’re visiting Suffolk and want to explore a mysterious coastal area with a secret history, Orford Ness is the place to go.
Not only was it a top secret operations base, but it also has links with one of the world’s most famous UFO incidents.
Read on to find out why Orford Ness must be one of your top destinations if you’re visiting the county of Suffolk…
- Things to see and do in Orford
- An olde worlde village
- Suffolk folklore – The Wild Man of Orford
- Big skies, estuaries…and samphire!
- The mystery of Orford Ness
- Orford Ness – missile testing site
- Where nature meets nuclear
- Smugglers and the Aussie accent!
- Delving deeper into Orford Ness history
- Above top secret
- Remnants of the past
- Orford Ness lighthouse R.I.P.
Things to see and do in Orford
Let’s start off by looking at the village of Orford itself. It’s one of our favourite East Suffolk villages for a variety of reasons…
Firstly, there is a car park with plenty of room for motorhomes. This is an important thing to consider when driving a 20+ foot beast.
There’s a magnificent 12th century castle and church.
There is a range of places to eat and enjoy fresh seafood.
There are great walks along the river banks and around the village itself.
And, of course, you can hop on a boat out to Orford Ness and get lost in nature and become captivated by the mystery of what really happened here in the past.
Let’s take a closer look…
An olde worlde village
Naturally, there are “no overnight camping” signs in the village car park, preventing any wild-camping. We’d camped the night before at one of our favourite Suffolk sites in Rendlesham Forest, just five miles or so inland.
But if you’ve got a day to spare there is plenty to see and do here, including arguably one of the best ice cream stalls – ever.
Before you get to look at the Ness across the water, it’s well worth spending some time in the village itself…
Until the growth of the spit of land cut it off from the open sea, Orford was once a thriving sea-port, both for fishing and commerce. The quaint cottages are Suffolk at its beautiful best here, many of them being second homes or holiday lets.
At the height of the summer season the main street sees friendly tourists leisurely soaking up the olde worlde atmosphere. It could easily make a great setting for a historical film.
The 12th century Orford Castle, built by Henry II and now managed by English Heritage is well worth exploring.
But once the summer visitors leave for warmer climes and the cold desolation returns, you can almost see the ghosts of the hungry fishermen setting out searching for another day’s vital catch.
Indeed, this whole area is bleak in winter, foreboding even, especially the Ness which was the domain of the poor farmer and fisherman. An environment which gave rise to strange tales that live on to this day…
Suffolk folklore – The Wild Man of Orford
The Wild Man of Orford, a naked ‘creature’ with a hairy chest and matted beard, was caught in fishing nets in the 12th century.
Maybe a merman, he was taken to the newly-built castle and held there and tortured – obviously – in an attempt to strain some story out of him. That’s what we do isn’t it, to anything or anyone not of our own kind?
He ate raw food, being particularly fond of fish, and his captors allowed him to swim in an area boundaried by netting. He eventually escaped, swimming out of the net cage, never to return.
His image to this day is depicted in many carvings and signs around the village. It’s become part of Suffolk folklore, similar to that of the devil dog, Black Shuck.
Big skies, estuaries…and samphire!
The village of Orford encompasses all that is great about East Suffolk…
A slower pace of life.
Sleepy lanes with cottages dripping with wisteria waterfalls.
Big skies as you look out across the flatlands of estuaries with their myriads of wading birds.
And gentle but strong people…
People still working on the land or the water, begging nature for a meagre existence, moving with the tide and the changing seasons.
We walked alongside the river toward the sea, picking samphire from the mud. We might not be gourmet chefs but samphire is a wonderful addition to seafood or pasta!
The footpath – along a ridged sea-defence – makes for a lovely afternoon stroll, stretching out from the village quay between lush meadows and vegetated sand with dips and pools.
But then you notice, with curiosity, something across the water. And this becomes the real reason to visit Orford…
The mystery of Orford Ness
We wondered about the buildings across the water on what appeared to be an island. How – and why – were there substantial looking structures on an island in the middle of nowhere?
They did not appear to be agricultural in nature so what were they?
There were tall masts and square monstrosities, resembling cold war, East German apartment blocks.
The only obvious construction was a lighthouse, the lighthouse – say the skeptics – that caused the strange lights at Rendlesham Forest during the famous UFO incident of 1980.
A map showed us that the “island” is actually a ten-mile-long spit. It makes landfall at Aldeburgh albeit by a thin strip which could be overwhelmed and washed away by a good storm.
Intrigued, we did a little Googling – to save you the effort – and discovered that Suffolk is home to more than just sheep, cows and us country-folk…
Orford Ness – missile testing site
The National Trust ferries people across only a couple of days a week, so it’s no good just turning up and expecting to get onto the Ness. Check their website for up-to-date info, especially during the COVID situation. Indeed, on our last trip no visits were available.
Luckily, there were no such problems in 2018 when life was normal…
Once over the river and on the spit, we were herded together and given a few rules for the day. Guests were asked to remain on the trails as this is a unique and fragile ecological area.
We were also told that there is also a risk of inadvertently activating unexploded ordnance should one stray too far!
Most practically, we were told of the location of the Ness’s only toilet.
After that, we were left to our own devices although friendly individuals – wardens we assume – made themselves available at various points along the paths, happy to impart some of the Ness’s stories .
There are no other facilities on Orford Ness, so take your own food and drink! And to get the most from your visit we advise you to get the earliest ferry of the day as you’ll need several hours here to explore all the buildings.
Where nature meets nuclear
We were intrigued to find out that Orford Ness housed the next generation of RADAR which was initially tested at Bawdsey, another of our favourite Suffolk places.
The huge warehouse-type building was actually the top-secret Anglo-American COBRA MIST experimental installation.
This spit of land is recognised as one of the most important shingle features in Europe. It houses breeding colonies of birds and the marshes are grazed rather than mechanically managed.
It has grown to around ten miles in length, but the length and width fluctuate from storm to storm. Some storms eat away at chunks of the spit’s shoreline – sometimes taking a building at the same time. This, after all, is the the Suffolk Coast.
As the spit grew, the sea was kept away from the land and salt marshes formed. The ridge we’d earlier walked along beside the river was probably a barrier built centuries ago to stop storm surges from flooding the meadows and the village itself.
Smugglers and the Aussie accent!
Like many coastal areas, smuggling was one of the chief occupations in Orford, and Margaret Catchpole became one such infamous character. Certain books have romanticised her but in truth she was of sterner stuff. She was eventually sent to Australia having avoided the death penalty.
Incidentally, the earliest criminals sent to Australia were nearly all from Suffolk – hence why Suffolk folk who stray too far away from home are often asked which part of Australia they are from. The Aussie accent is derived from the Suffolk dialect – and some of its criminals!
So, the spit, seeing more than its fair share of smuggling activity, introduced Revenue men and later the coastguard, constructing a lookout to patrol the area.
Delving deeper into Orford Ness history
In the 1600s French Privateers attacked the lighthouse and the Battle of Orford Ness was fought with the Dutch over the 25th and 26th of July 1666.
A new lighthouse was built in 1792, just in time to see Napoleon threaten Suffolk’s shores!
The spit formed part of our defences, but where it touched land it was regarded as a weak spot. One of a range of Martello Towers reaching along the East Anglian coastline was built at Slaughden near Aldeburgh, still standing (and used today as a holiday home!)
Never a dull moment in sleepy Suffolk, the spit was purchased by the war department around 1913.
Then things really got exciting…
By 1915, the marshes had been drained, and the spit had a runway fit for aeroplanes. Top secret operations were carried out across both World Wars and into the nuclear age.
Above top secret
During this period, all staff were bound by the official secrets act and have held their peace to this day!
Maybe there was not much to tell but the stories have seeped into the soil: on our visit, we were warned not to eat the ‘glowing’ blackberries!
There are stories of nuclear explosions…
Rumours of a German invasion here and a few miles south at Shingle Street met with walls of fire…
And a UFO incident just a few miles inland that may have been concocted to hide less exciting – or more sinister – nuclear activity here on the Ness.
Remnants of the past
Whatever the remnants of the past, Orford Ness retains its sense of mystery.
It takes the whole day to walk around the site and even then we regretted not allowing ourselves longer to soak up the atmosphere of the dilapidated buildings that now stand empty with ghosts.
The National Trust have detailed information on each of the buildings – many of which are open to visitors with displays and models. Intriguing names such as the Bomb Ballistics Building, Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, The Black Beacon, Radio Direction Finding (later RADAR), Pagodas… COBRA MIST!
Is this really sleepy Suffolk?
Orford Ness lighthouse R.I.P.
We thoroughly enjoyed our day on this little slice of history…
The military occupation is fascinating, right from WWI through to The Cold War. There is so much to read and learn, though much of it, we suspect, will remain secret.
We also appreciated the architecture of the buildings. Those that have been left to the battering of the weather straight off the unforgiving North Sea have an eerie, echoing resonance, which connects you to the past.
Sadly, the current lighthouse is about to be removed, brick by brick, as it’s about to fall into the sea! The local council have decided, for safety reasons, to take her down after more than 200 years of service.
Perhaps this year’s pandemic has, ironically, given the lighthouse a stay of execution? But that’s the things about this place; the wilderness will eventually outlive all that men have done here.
UPDATE AUGUST 2020: The lighthouse has gone! It was taken down this month and only the top part has been saved. Such a shame!
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Orford Ness and we’d love to hear of your comments below. Have you visited yourself? Tell us your stories!
Just make sure you check out the latest situation about boat trips to Orford Ness before you go.
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And remember to read about other great places to visit in Suffolk