The Blasted Peninsula.
November 1, 2010
Welcome to Orford Ness
On Wednesday, I went to Orford Ness. The Ness is a spit – a gravel peninsula, jutting out of the Suffolk coast and into the North Sea. Within a few years, if erosion continues at the current rate, the spit will have become an island in its own right – as it is, Orford locals refer to it as The Island, and we access it by boat on a windy, overcast morning.
The Ness is part salt marsh, part marsh proper and after that, almost entirely made up of shingle. Along its seaward shore, the pebbles undulate in irregular craters, testimony to the site’s half-secret history: between the First World War and the Cold War, Orford Ness was used by the MOD for munitions testing, and homed Cobra Mist, an experimental over-land UK-American radar station.
The land has been de-commissioned now, and buildings are disintegrating back into the land – two porcelain toilets stand within the brick outline of a former mess-hall; the rooms are still visible from above, but one of them has now become one of the many lagoons that support the astonishingly diverse bird-life on the ness. In one morning, we see Redshanks, widgeon, egrets, avocets, a friendly barn-owl who flies close by our heads, and even a peregrine, spotted by our sharp-eyed guide as the smaller birds flew up in plumes below it, a black cloud below the light-house which is the main source of relief on a largely flat horizon. Within five years, the lighthouse will have to be retired, and in all likelihood dismantled, as the sea encroaches on the coastline at its foot.
In a small museum on the site, that gives some of the story of the changing landscape, and some of the projects that the MOD has claimed it for at various points across the twenty-first century, is the most troubling exhibit I have ever seen on public display. Below a brief history of the nuclear bomb, and a photograph of the Christmas Island bombing, is a disarmed nuclear warhead. It is small – about five feet in length, nothing to the towering images of bombs as high as houses that we see coming out of Albuquerque today – but the shape is so familiar it takes a moment to slew away the cartoon and movie images of friendly, personified bombs that move like dolphins, and re-focus on the death machine staring me in the face.
Unexploded WW2 incendiary bombs are still buried across the ness, a hidden threat to trespassing anglers who continue to diobey warning signs and strike out across the beaches, away from the designated, tested and cleared pathways.
What is entrancing about the ness is not what it is possible to see, but what remains unknown. The workshops where Nukes were built, now dilapiated and filled with pebbles, that WG Sebald figures as gas chambers in Rings of Saturn; the Black Beacon that stands stark agains the pale pebbles and grey seascape behind it; that platonic ideal of a red-and-white-striped lighthouse. They are potent triggers for memory and imagination; sites like this one are crucial to keeping alive the memory of Britain’s military history and the destructive role we played in the development of nuclear arms. Every time I learn something new about what happenned on the ness, what was tested here, which reconnaisance techniques were pioneered and honed here, I wonder at the untold stories, the years of MOD files on this blasted heath that have yet to be declassified.
The birds wouldn’t be here without the protection form industry and tourism that the continued military presence has provided it with across the years. The different kinds of marshland, side-by-side with their huge range of grasses and plants, different kinds of samfire offering purples and reds against the gently changing greens, would go unnoticed if the radar testing site hadn’t made this a National Trust site to be protected and explained to the public. The great scars on the beaches wouldn’t be there, either, or the huge, unexplained circle of concrete that marks the landscape like a military Nazca.
Tired and with too much information, too many lines of enquiry, fighting for precedence in my head, I leave Orford Ness with my imagination ranging back across the decades, and with a strange sense of dissatisfacation that I cannot reconcile the different natures of this place to one essence. Driving away from Orford, I feel like I have read the first chapter of a murder mystery, and that the rest of the plot remains, yet to be uncovered.