National Trust Orford Ness National Nature Reserve

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Orford Ness, Suffolk, is an internationally important nature reserve, with a fascinating 20th-century military history.

Orford Ness, described by a BBC documentary as ‘half wilderness, half military junkyard’, is a shingle spit on the Suffolk coast in Great Britain, linked to the mainland at Aldeburgh and stretching along the coast to Orford. It is divided from the mainland by the River Alde, and was formed by longshore drift along the coast. The material of the spit comes from places further north, such as Dunwich. The peninsula was formerly administered by the Ministry of Defence, which conducted secret military tests during both world wars. The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment had a base on the site, and is believed to have developed the firing mechanisms for nuclear devices there. Many of the buildings from this time remain clearly visible from the quay at Orford, including the distinctive-looking ‘pagodas’ which were designed to collapse in the event of an accidental explosion. There is also a transmitting station on the peninsula, which uses the former Cobra Mist experimental over-the-horizon radar site to send medium wave broadcasts across the North Sea to mainland Europe.

Orford Ness is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public under the name “Orford Ness National Nature Reserve”, though some buildings are closed off because of their advanced state of disrepair. In his travel book Rings of Saturn, the writer W.G. Sebald discussed his experience of visiting Orford Ness, likening it in appearance and atmosphere to a post-nuclear wasteland.

Owing to its military history, its stark appearance and the fact that it was closed to the public for many decades, several apocryphal stories have circulated about Orford Ness. The best-known is the suggestion that Nazi troops attempted to invade England and actually disembarked at the tip of the peninsula, before being repelled with a wall of fire. However, Shingle Street residents of the time have subsequently denied any such attempted invasion took place, and the story is now largely dismissed as myth.

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