A visit to Orford Ness – the ‘isle of secrets’

Orford Ness in Suffolk was once a top-secret military research site and today operated by the National Trust. This 10-mile-long shingle spit on the Suffolk Coast is home to a range of habitats, including salt marshes, reed beds and lowland heath, and only accessible by ferry. The secretive research military research centre came into operation in 1912 and was closed in 1985 when it was taken over by the Nation Trust. For many years it was forbidden to approach the island.

I visited on the last weekend of Afterness in October 2021 – a series of installations commissioned by Artangel that included works by Ilya Kaminsky, Emma McNally, Chris Watson, Alice Channer and others. Orford Ness is an extraordinary location. Some of the military buildings have been retained and allowed to naturally decay. The site includes the Cobra Mist radar masts built in early 40’s, a former lighthouse, blast bunkers, and the remains of an experimental rocket testing site. W G Sebald wrote about a journey to Orford Ness in his book The Rings of Saturn. Sebald found it a desolate lonely place. For me it is one of the most extraordinary places in the whole of Britain. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the uncanny atmosphere of strolling along the paths that snake across the shingle, navigating my way from one defunct military installation to the next conjuring up the peculiar wartime experiments that were conducted here. It must have been an intense and paranoid place.

Orford Ness bunker
Orford Ness
Orford Ness Suffolk
Orford Ness bunker
Orford Ness bunker

Back in the village of Orford having a pint in the Jolly Sailor, the mysteriousness of the landscape sunk in. The temple-like nature of the decayed military buildings, the proximity to the famous Rendlesham Forest UFO incident (the Orford lighthouse was unconvincingly proffered as an explanation), and the great Anglo Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo. The lost city of Dunwich lies beneath the waves just a few miles north. This is a seriously surreal stretch of the English coastline – a place of deep mystery.

Map showing the alignment of Orford Ness, Sutton Hoo and Rendlesham Forest
alignment of Orford Ness, Sutton Hoo and Rendlesham Forest

Related videos:

Rendlesham Forest UFO Trail – Britain’s Roswell / Bentwaters Incident

Along the River Deben to Sutton Hoo

Sebald’s Rings of Saturn Walk Southwold to Dunwich