Orford Ness off the Suffolk coast is a 10-mile long spit of shingle divided from the land by the River Alde at Aldeburgh and the River Ore at Orford. It ends to the south at Shingle Street, but its ‘end’ at the mouth of the Ore is constantly changing as pebbles from the north continue to be deposited there. Shingle Street is in fact a continuation of the same deposition.
The Ness is both a National Nature Reserve, for its geomorphological and botanical interests, and a property of the National Trust, essentially for its historical interest in that it was the site of military experiments and developments from the first World War until the end of the Cold War. I had the privilege of being involved in its acquisition by the NT c1990, not the most obvious of potential Trust properties since it had no endowment, was certainly not beautiful and at first sight appeared to be nothing more than a derelict military establishment. Yet for better or worse significant aspects of the history of 20th century warfare, from research on airborne bombing to the development of radar and the atom bomb, are represented in the archaeology of this place and, some 30 years after its acquisition, few would now question its appropriateness as a Trust property conserved in the national interest. The best book about it is Most Secret. The Hidden History of Orford Ness by Paddy Heazell.
Managing the site is difficult. It usually floods in winter; there is still a danger of unexploded ordnance off the cleared tracks and paths; public exploration of the Ness is further limited by its widespread use by ground-nesting birds; and existing structures are fragile and often unsafe. Access is by ferry from Orford quay which, like so much else in our Covid world nowadays, has to be booked in advance. A key agent in the site’s management is a flock of c150 native and rare breed sheep whose carefully manipulated grazing helps keep the vegetation under control. One of my great pleasures in geriatric life is being a volunteer helping to look after this flock, but I have never worked with them on the Ness. My role is to keep an eye on them when they come off the Ness to spend the winter on the mainland while the Ness floods.
I took a party of 23 over the other day on what proved to be in terms of weather a stunning, no-cloud-in-the-sky early autumn day. The light was brilliant and, out of season, we had the place to ourselves. We coincided with a classy art exhibition which allowed us to visit buildings normally out of bounds. I will write more on this, with illustrations, later.