Where and in what time I truly was that day at Orford Ness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.’ Luke Bennett (Senior Lecturer Hallam University)
We had been lucky enough to book one of a very few photographic tours now offered by the National Trust. Whilst the public can get a boat from Orford Quay during the summer months, they cannot get close to the famous pagodas or the range of decaying buildings unless they book a tour with the rangers.
Orford Ness is an internationally important site for nature conservation. It contains a significant portion of the European reserve of vegetated shingle habitat, which is internationally scarce, highly fragile and very easily damaged.
The military history of the site dates back to 1913, when a large part of the Ness was taken over by the War Department. During the first World War scientists experimented with parachutes, aerial photography, bomb and machine gun sights as well as the evaluation of aircraft and the development of camouflage.
Probably the most mysterious parts of the site, which still hold the most fascination, are the iconic pagodas used for atomic bomb testing. They were built in this style to ensure, that in the event of an explosion the roof would collapse and absorb the blast, whilst the surrounding banks of shingle would fall into any gaps preventing noxious substances from escaping. These tests were designed to replicate the conditions a weapon might experience prior to detonation such as vibration, extremes of temperature, shocks and G Forces. Earlier testing sites had aluminium roofs which were designed to blow off. The work was secret and even today mystery surrounds this experimentation and testing. No nuclear material was said to be involved but high explosive most certainly was and any failure could have resulted in catastrophe.
In 1968 the Americans also made use of Orford Ness. The top-secret Anglo American System 441A over-the-horizon radar project was set up. Named Cobra Mist its aim was to detect and track aircraft, missile and satellite launchings. Rumours grew up around Cobra Mist that its aim was really to track UFOs and that somewhere on the site a UFO is actually buried.
My first impression, as we bumped along in the covered trailer, was how open and barren it seemed. I felt like I had arrived in another country in another time. The tide was out and I was struggling to find an interesting composition to photograph. There seemed to be endless miles of shingle punctuated only by slithers of greenery.
After a welcome cup of tea and a useful health and safety talk we set off again to explore the strange buildings that seem to provide a full stop to the emptiness of the shingle landscape.
I became absorbed in photographing shadows created by metal structures that still remain. Their abstract lines and shapes were enticing but the light was difficult. I was glad I could hand hold the Olympus at very low shutter speeds and that the HDR mode is so quick and easy to use. We moved from building to building during the day exploring viewpoints and experimenting with composition. The sometimes eerie silence was interrupted only by shutters clicking whilst tripods added further shadows and shapes.
There is something wonderfully mesmerising about decay especially when it is accompanied by mystery. I enjoyed the day immensely and being told it was unlikely many more people would be able to photograph these decrepit buildings made our visit even more special.
It’s one of the few places you can come to that you can truthfully describe as ‘strange’.
Duncan Kent (Visitor Services Warden National Trust)