On Orford Ness

Late September on the coast of Suffolk, with the sky curdling into low cloud. From the mainland pier, Orford Ness is a low flat slate-grey spit, tapering to a wire of horizon at each end. Between here and there, the narrow channel of the River Ore sweeps southwest down the coast to the North Sea, bearing a few fishing smacks and weekend motorboats whose prows point into the tide. Across the water, on the skyline: a lighthouse; a distant array of reticulated radio-masts; a cluster of concrete barrows like brutalist burial mounds. A union flag is drooping on its pole at the end of the quay.

There’s a row of houses along the shore, and as I wait for the boat a man wanders out with his morning coffee to look at the sky. He points out the small shelter attached to the front of a building on the quay, with an eyrie window above, looking out towards the Ness. ‘Some writer chappie bought that,’ he says. ‘Writes spy novels for kids. Nice place to work.’ He’s been here for twenty years, since before he retired. Does he know anything about the Ness? ‘Oh, it’s an interesting place. Never been out, though. One of these days.’

A ten-mile skelf of flint, Orford Ness clings to the land by a slim causeway. Each year it grows or shrinks by a few feet as the sea rolls its matter from place to place, shifting sand banks and scrambling the current. Salt soaks into the marshes. The Royal Flying Corps arrived in 1915, draining part of the spit to make an air-strip. Leather-casqued airmen flew coastal sorties over the beach, testing cross-hairs, range-finders, cameras, parachutes, and bomb-sights, while the back-room boys shivered in huts on the shingle, calculating impact velocities and adjusting ballistic trajectories. In the 1930s, an Air Ministry team began covertly testing a prototype radar, laying the foundation of ‘Chain Home’, the early-warning system that scanned the British coast for inbound German bombers. The team leader, Robert Watson-Watt — a man with a name like a radar echo — was wise to the paradoxical topography. ‘For security and secrecy,’ he wrote, ’it was almost too obviously right; one could not look out of a window without having The Riddle of the Sands intrude on the riddle of radar.’

Since 1993, when the National Trust bought the land from the Ministry of Defence, there has been a bird sanctuary here. A breeding colony of little tern warily shares the beach with an enclave of black-backed gulls. The gulls conduct the odd strafing run, but the terns seem sanguine. Likewise, the birders and the military buffs nod to one another on the gravel trails between the reeds and the ballistics laboratories. Everyone stays on the path, glancing a little doubtfully at the signs. ‘The National Trust / DANGER / UNEXPLODED ORDNANCE / PLEASE KEEP TO THE VISITOR ROUTE’. You find yourself wondering what the birds know. Avian telemetry. A jolt of Hitchcock paranoia. Ringers keep an eye on their migrations, working up a global surveillance. A placard warns of the delicate mist nets strung in the undergrowth. On a bramble, moth caterpillars are spreading a dense white web over dead leaves.

We walk the Ness in a triangle from the western jetty, between the weapons research labs to the south and, to the north, the huge transmitter masts that now beam the BBC’s World Service across Europe. The masts fan out in a configuration like a scallop-shell with the apex pointing toward the Dutch coast. A Cold War holdover, the whole grid is a recycled US-UK experiment in long range radar codenamed ‘COBRA MIST’. A museum on the site does the requisite material history on a shoestring budget. (I’m keen on the Cobra Mist tie, with its embroidered map of the Ness under a radar beam.) The high transmitter towers keep drifting into the corner of the eye as we pick our way over concrete, pebbles, dirt track, passing the husks of lookout posts and utility huts. Crumbling foundations mark the demolition of dubious laboratories. At the eastern limit of land, the stripes on the Orfordness lighthouse seem fresh. That red paint is the only permanent colour for miles. An abraded smartphone, washed up on the beach, lies in the shadow of the tower.

South of the light, the earth heaps up in industrial tumuli over the remains of bomb-labs: a set of tabernacles built to test the ignition triggers for Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. Beyond them, down the coast, strangest of all, loom the raised silhouettes of two shrines: local lore calls them pagodas, but they look more like Corbusier-Doric temples, trapezoid roofs topping minimalist colonnades. These squat test sites were designed for containment and prepped for high-yield blow-out. Hephaestean, according to the logic of the place, the layering of martial technics, they sulk away from the gauzy herms of the transmitters. Trace the components, the nuclear parts on trial at Orford Ness, and you reach its antipode: the desert of South Australia. Operation Buffalo. Operation Antelope. A chain reaction on cleared land. Emptied space. Nothing to see.

Somewhere on the long stretch between the armaments bunkers and the radio masts, I’m struck by the work of propitiation, our way of repurposing these blasted landscapes. One site of exception gives way to another, military secrecy to nature reserve. Once the glamour’s on it stays on. The temples don’t just look like temples, they mark a manner and an object of veneration: the techno-soteriology of an atomic creed. Make a bombing range into a wildlife sanctuary and you keep the spatial logic, the consecration of the field. Decontamination will get you only so far: there’s a metaphysics involved, too, a conceptual project, the production of stable sites out of ground that keeps shifting.

Here and there, we pass small groups of ramblers or twitchers, curious National Trust members and Cold War aficionados. There are still working range-finders on top of the observation huts. I draw a bead on a man in a red cagoule. Back at the jetty we catch the last boat. Rain has held off, though the wind is coming up across the wide flat plain. Half a mile from the shore of the Ness to the mainland, where the quay is deserted. Under the cloud cover, a single vigilant gull.

James Purdon