When I walked the coast of Suffolk (in 2006) I passed through Orford but did not visit Orford Ness because I did not have time to include it on the day I did the walk that reached there or to stop the next day and I was not clear how much access there was at the time.
However I decided it was somewhere that looked rather interesting and well worth a visit and that I should go back. However it has fairly limited opening hours (only Saturday not Sunday) and only during the Spring, Summer and Autumn.
As I had already walked this part of the coast I decided to do it for a day trip. Sadly unlike when I first walked here, there is no longer a usable bus service to Orford (the only bus leaves Orford in the early morning and returns in the late evening) so I opted to drive there this time instead.
It took me around 2.5 hours, quite a long drive, and I was not exactly sure how long it would take when I set off but I hopped to reach Orford in time for the first ferry (at 10am). I arrived at the car park with the car clock showing 9:52, perfect timing! It costs £4 to park for the day and the car park was only a minute or two from the quay.
Here I found the National Trust ticket office and purchased a ticket for Orford Ness. The ferryman was already waiting in the same building. On the day of my visit, the ferry ran every 20 minutes between 10am and 2pm (only) to Orford Ness and you can return on any of these boats. There is then a 40 minute break (to allow the ferrymen time to have lunch) then boats resume roughly every 20 minutes (or whenever anyone is waiting) but after 2pm they do not take people too Orford Ness but only from it. I’m told that this is because the National Trust like to limit the number of visitors each day to around 150 to avoid it feeling crowded, with each ferry taking up to 12 people.
As it is not possible to book and I was not sure how busy it would be, this is why I was keen to arrive in time for the first boat. It was also a lovely day in terms of weather for the time of year. Temperatures in the low teens, clear skies and sunny, albeit a little hazy.
There were 9 people crossing on the first ferry and it only takes a couple of minutes. Orford Ness is a shingle spit, but it is a vast spit. Originally the mouth of the river Alde flowed out just south of the town of Aldeburgh, but soon this began to silt, causing a line of shingle to form, this has extended south over very many years to stretch for an amazing 10 miles now. However at the present time, much of the spit is eroding again. There are no towns or villages on the spit, neither are there any roads or proper paths, making it very remote.
On reaching the shingle spit at the little quay we were met by the National Trust warden. I had purchased a little information leaflet at the kiosk in Orford but for those that had not a free map is issued. There are 3 routes over the spit, but unfortunately for me only one was open on the day of my visit, the other two being closed due to nesting birds, the downside of visiting in the spring.
The open route was the red route. On leaving Orford we had been issued with a card detailing your surname and the number of people in your party. We were told this is so the NT can keep track of who is on the spit and ensure no one was left behind at the end of the day. In some ways this is a shame, as I was hoping I might be able to walk along the beach to Aldeburgh when I had done, but it seemed this would not be possible.
Instead we had to ask for the card back before we could get on the ferry, so that the warden knew if there were any cards left at 5pm, they still had people left on the spit. A simple but effective system. After our short briefing about the history of the site we were free to wander the red trail.
The three trails are coloured and marked by regular arrows painted on the tarmac, shingle, concrete or whatever else is to hand!
Orford Ness has a very interesting history. Originally entirely natural the military began to show an interest in it around World War I. An airfield was built on the spit during World War I, although most of the area where this was has since been partly flooded to form salt marsh and most of the buildings have been destroyed by the elements, since it is very exposed.
Later, after World War II, the military activity increased, with the Cobra Mist radar site setup to attempt to intercept radio from Russia, though it never really worked properly. Another rather more sinister activity was the testing of Nuclear Bombs and their detonators which happened here during the 1960s and 70s. It was in the late 1980s that the last of the military activity ceased and it was purchased by the National Trust, who now own most of the spit, in 1993. In later years there has also been other activity with the BBC World Service broadcasting from a mast on Orford Ness until 2012 and the Orford Ness Lighthouse which was in use until 2013.
At the quay there is also a landing craft type vehicle which I think is used to carry vehicles over to the island. Most of the wardens seemed to move about the various areas by bike during the day.
From the collection of mostly temporary buildings at the quay I first followed the track (more a road really) alongside the marsh on the right. Orford, and it’s castle, could be seen beyond.
The first path off to the right was closed (this is the blue trail). So I continued past some information signs about the marsh and birdlife and then took the second track off to the right (the red trail).
Orford Ness is almost two islands, the first, Kings Marsh is mostly marsh whilst further south is the main shingle beach with a stream between them and so they are linked by a bailey bridge. I had now reached the southern edge of Kings Marsh and here there were the remains of some sort of old petrol station and a couple of derelict buildings, one of which looked like an old aircraft hanger.
One of the buildings had been restored and now contained a museum.
Here I got talking to the very chatty warden who was outside and told me what to see as well as a bit of history of the site (he used to have to make deliveries here when it was still in military use and so knew a lot about the place). It was nice to talk to someone who knew this site both as it is now and as it was when it was in use.
Once I’d finished chatting I headed inside. It could have been more welcoming!
I think these signs are old and no longer apply. However if I, and this website, disappear without a trace then you will know they do in fact still apply!
Inside there was a lot of history about the place, including historic maps, old aerial photos and information about the use of the site during World War II. Further along we moved onto the Cold War section where there was information about the testing of Nuclear Bombs that took place here and the detonators. Out on the shingle you could see the remains of the buildings used mostly for testing the detonators and ballistics, half buried (deliberately) in shingle.
The warden told me that they do occasional tours of some of the outer buildings (all of which are now derelict) but he was not sure how much longer these would continue because of the dreaded “health and safety” and the deteriorating condition of the buildings. Sadly these tours were not running on the day of my visit.
Behind the museum building was also a little viewing point where you could look out over the Stony Ditch tidal creek that separates the two parts of the site. There was some bird life here, but not that much.
I continued then on the main track heading north east past more buildings. Some were derelict but some still in use, including by the wardens as accommodation and for storage although one was I think in use by a photographic society.
I passed a track leading over to the Cobra Mist site. The scale of this can only really be appreciated from aerial photos but you can see the numerous aerials in position still. Sadly this area is not open in the spring, so I was not able to visit.
I soon reached the Bailey Bridge, a recent construction by the National Trust to replace old concrete bridges that were unsafe, this took me over the creek onto the pebble area of the site.
There were the remains of a building on the right here, an aircraft hangar I think.
I also spotted a hare in the marsh beside the bridge – these are quite common on Orford Ness I’m told but to be honest I am not that clear on the difference between a rabbit and a hare (I think the latter is larger – is there any other difference?).
Out before me now was a vast expanse of shingle.
This was the really attraction for me, it reminded me very much of Dungeness. Out in the distance were the old radio buildings near Cobra Mist but I’m told these are privately owned but the National Trust have no idea what the owner wants to do with them.
Here I headed out first to the Bomb Ballistics buildings.
This was a sort of control centre and they had high speed cine cameras which fired off shots as the bullets or bombs were fired to capture exactly what happened.
The film was processed on one of the other buildings on the site. On top of this building there was a set of binoculars where you could view the whole site.
It gave me a good overview – which was largely an awful lot of shingle.
The ridges here have allowed vegetation to form but the area is more or less a desert, but because it is such a rare habitat there is all sorts of environmental protections in place.
Beyond there was a circle of concrete, obviously used for something in the past but I’ve no idea what.
Onwards I now followed the path out to the lighthouse.
This is over shingle although has been coloured a bit to make the route more obvious – I’m told it is important not to stray off the paths because of the risk of un-exploded ordnance.
I saw some (exploded) ordnance on the way.
The lighthouse has a very interesting history. It was built in 1792 but there had been lighthouses on this site going back much earlier which had been destroyed either by the tide or by fires (since they were mostly lit with flames rather than electric light).
The current lighthouse had been in use right from 1792 to 2013, when Trinity House decided it was no longer required because the lighthouse at Southwold had been made brighter (I suspect modern GPS navigation systems and the like also played a part). The importance of the lighthouse has been great in the past though as the shingle spit provides a large hazard in the busy shipping lanes leading to Felixstowe and Harwich.
However the lighthouse is built only on shingle, which has been eroding over the years.
When the lighthouse was decommissioned in 2013 it was around 15 metres from the high tide line, now as you will see it is pretty much on the high tide line and very likely to be destroyed by the sea in the next few years, another reason I wanted to visit Orford Ness before it does go.
When the lighthouse closed in 2013 I’m told (by one of the wardens) it was offered to the National Trust but they declined to buy it because the rotating part of the light is on a bed of mercury and they did not wish to deal with the removal and disposing of this. So it was subsequently bought by a private individual, the same person that owns the large old radio station building. Unfortunately, from what the wardens told me, the relationship between the owner and the National Trust is not good. The owner of the lighthouse wants to try to save it buy putting up coastal defences around it. The National Trust is opposed to this, because they don’t believe it will work and will cause more erosion and changes on the other areas of the spit. I can’t help but feel the National Trust made a mistake in not buying it when they had the chance.
The owner has set up a trust, the Orford Ness Lighthouse Trust to attempt to save it and open it to the public but sadly it was not open on my visit, so I could only see the outside. It was lovely though as I’ve said before I am a fan of lighthouses but it still looked like it was still in use even though it was not. The outer buildings that remain I think houses the oil that used to be used by the light before it was electrified. There also used to be cottages here for the lighthouse keepers but these were demolished when the lighthouse was automated. Having said that there was a very derelict cottage closed by, where the roof had blown off in recent storms. My leaflet from the National Trust said they hoped to restore it – I’m no expert, but it looks well beyond saving to me.
From the front at the lighthouse all looked well, but heading around the back the extent of the erosion was clear to see. One of the outer buildings had had all the shingle around the coastal side making the foundations visible and at the corner closest to the sea, the shingle underneath the building had been washed away too.
The lighthouse itself is just about still within the shingle, but it does not look like it has long left. What was once grass around the lighthouse has mostly gone and the drain covers were still there but the brick housing the pipes (or sewage?) were now all exposed and were sort of bee-hive shaped.
It was both fascinating and sad to see at the same time. It really be a shame when it goes, but I suspect this will be in the next couple of years. (At the time of publishing this post 2 years later in, April 2018, the lighthouse still stands and is open to the public on a few Sundays during 2018 should you wish to visit whilst you still can).
In an attempt to delay the erosion the owner has raised £10,000 to put in some shingle filled “sausages” around the base of the lighthouse (you can see them below) to try to protect it whilst he raised money for metal piling he wants to put in to further protect it – something the National Trust opposes.
Having investigated the lighthouse I headed down onto the beach – miles of shingle and sand as far as you could see and in fact no towns or villages visible in either direction.
The route of the trail I was following was now south over the shingle to the Police Tower marked on my map, except that the tower had been lost to the sea a few years ago, so you now had to follow the shingle beach until you came to a sign saying “Police Tower”, then turn right inland to a wooden black structure which looked like a windmill.
From here I turned inland and walked on the shingle to reach this black windmill-like tower.
Though time for a last look back at the lighthouse, too.
Once I reached the black tower one of the Cold War buildings was accessible to the left, so I walked over to this first, before I explored the tower.
The nuclear bombs that were tested here were triggered by an initial explosion using normal explosive which started the chain reaction. These were tested under various conditions here, including freezing and massive vibrations to ensure they would detonate only when they were meant to. The buildings I could see ahead are partly encased in concrete with roofs on top which were designed to collapse and contain any explosion in the event something went wrong. However these buildings are only accessible now by guided tour. I can’t help but wonder and hope that the NT have been around the area with a Giga counter before it was opened up!
The building I could reach to was very derelict with the main roof having collapsed and partly flooded with two derelict control rooms on the right.
It was all very eery. Heading back to the black tower I was soon joined by another warden (who had told me about the lighthouse) and this too housed part of a museum and you can go up to the top and look out through the windows in each direction.
It reminded me of a windmill. Next door was the “Power House” showing all the rubbish and other finds that have been made on the beach over the years.
This was the last area of buildings to explore and many of them were derelict. This is truly a desolate place which feels very Soviet in nature. It was really very interesting.
Having explored the site I headed slowly back, stopping again in the museum and then heading back to the quay. I did not have to wait at all for the boat and took it back around 1:30pm. I stopped for lunch on the quay, enjoying the view back to Orford Ness.
Rather than head straight home, I decided to visit Orford Castle before heading home. This is owned by English Heritage. Although not a huge castle it is quite well preserved and still quite imposing.
There were several floors to explore inside.
However a particular highlight is that you can go onto the roof and admire the views of Orford and Orford Ness, though the latter was now rather hazy.
I also stopped for another look around this pretty little town.
Once I’d explored the town and castle too, I felt I’d seen Orford and it was time to move on.
I had really enjoyed my visit to Orford Ness. This place is not for everyone for sure, it is isolated, desolate and bleak, but it is also unique and quite fascinating to explore. It is far from the usual National Trust property of a stately home being a collection of unique but mostly derelict buildings, large amounts of rusty metal and miles and miles of shingle. There is nowhere else like it, and I think it is well worth the visit. I was also very impressed at how much of interest there was in and around Orford.
There is no useful public transport to Orford (the only bus arrives at Orford at 18:24 and only if anyone is still on the bus at that point). Instead if you do not have access to a car then you would need to call a taxi to Orford (probably from Woodbridge, which has a railway station).
Orford Ness is owned by the National Trust who have a website about it here. For 2018 it is open Saturdays only from 31st March to 23rd of June and from 6th to 27th October. Between 26th June and 29th September it is open on Tuesday to Saturday. It costs £10 for adults to visit though this is discounted to £4 for National Trust members (which is the ferry fare).