A globally significant Cold War research and development site

In August, we welcomed a visitor from the past.
Professor John Allen, whose work played an important role in the research carried out whilst the Ness was used for weapons testing during the Cold War, made a return visit.
Jonathan Aylen, of the University of Manchester, is an expert on the design and development of Britain’s early atomic weapons and joined him for the visit to learn more about this part of the history of Orford Ness and shares some of his thoughts from the day.

“It is well known that Orford Ness is an internationally important site for its bird life, plants and distinctive shingle ridges.
Much less familiar is the fact that Orford Ness was a Cold War research site – in its time, one of the most secret development facilities in the world.
From the late 1940’s onwards, Orford Ness was used by the Royal Aircraft Establishment for testing the ballistics of Britain’s first post-war atomic bomb, called Blue Danube.

Trial bomb casings filled with concrete were repeatedly dropped over the site and their trajectory observed using special cameras and theodolites and early electronic monitoring.
The ballistics of Blue Danube were a key issue since early wind tunnel tests at Farnborough showed the bomb was reluctant to leave the aircraft once released, preferring instead to continue flying in the aircraft bomb bay. This would have had unfortunate consequences for the crew if the time delay fuse kicked in!

John Allen was the young man in charge of making sure Blue Danube fell to the ground successfully. He went on to become an eminent aeronautical engineer, working on Blue Steel, the Harrier and the Hawk trainer among many other projects.

David Warren, Jonathan Aylen and Prof John Allen in Lab 6 at Orford Ness

David Warren, Jonathan Aylen and Prof John Allen at Orford Ness

Now Professor John Allen, he visited visited Orford Ness in August as a guest of the National Trust and reminisced about the importance of the site in the development of Britain’s first nuclear deterrence. I joined him for the visit, where we also met David Warren, who is a volunteer with the National Trust developing an oral archive of those who, like him, worked on ‘the Island’.

Orford Ness is a globally significant Cold War Research and Development site and perhaps the only one associated with atomic weapons worldwide open to the public.”

So we can continue to expand our knowledge of Orford Ness, if you, any family members or someone you know worked on Orford Ness in any capacity, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us on 01394 450900.

Going a bit cuckoo…

Working on Orford Ness brings with it the privilege of views of some spectacular landscape and coastline. This privilege also brings the hazard of getting distracted, admits Lead Ranger, David Mason.

My office window has a view of the marshes in the distance and, closer, a patch of bramble and grass, as well as a powerline.
It can be very distracting at this time of year as many birds are actively nesting, feeding, perching and singing here.
Today, a stonechat has visited to feed on the grass and a linnet and whitethroat have been singing nearby.
Other days might bring a short-eared owl or an avocet, as well as a view of the new born lambs across the field.
Some days I am not sure how I get anything done at all!

We have been watching four cuckoos displaying on the bushes and powerlines around the site over the last few weeks.
It is a rare privilege to see these birds as well as hear their evocative call. It has been a bit frustrating trying to take a decent photo though as they don’t sit still for long and are soon mobbed by small birds trying to chase them away as they try to lay eggs in the nests of meadow pipits, reed buntings and various warblers.

A birds eye view. Cuckoo at Orford Ness.

A birds eye view.
Cuckoo at Orford Ness.

Our dedicated group of bird ringers produced the goods however and even caught one in their ringing nets, which is no mean feat either as they are often difficult to catch as well.
The Ringers, who are licensed by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), carefully apply lightweight metal rings to the bird’s leg. This can reveal useful information about the bird’s movements when it is recovered.

Ringed cuckoo at Orford Ness

Ringed cuckoo at Orford Ness

As technology has advanced, new methods of tracking have developed, which have parallels with the testing and use of telemetry and radar once carried out at Orford Ness. The BTO have been carrying out a programme of tagging cuckoos and other birds with electronic tags and tracking these with satellites. They have found that cuckoos follow migratory corridors on their arduous 6,000 mile journeys from the rainforests of the Congo to their summer breeding grounds in the UK.
They have also identified autumn and spring stopover areas within Europe that provide critical resources for the cuckoos as they migrate. This helps identify migratory corridors and key habitats that are vital for cuckoos and other birds and can help other conservationists determine what needs to be done to help protect them throughout their journey.

The BTO have also been tracking the movements of lesser black-backed gulls on Orford Ness using this technology for some while, although not on cuckoos from the Ness as yet.

To find out more about their work with cuckoos, click here for some more detailed information. There is even a Cuckoo called Dave!

Hitting all the right notes

As we prepare for the coming new opening season and the return of visitors to Orford Ness, a timely article on the Caught by the River website, reminded us of the birds we are hoping will return as well, to nest on the recently strimmed grass of the islands in the brackish lagoons of the Ness.

Earth Recordings have reissued Bert Jansch’s 1979 album Avocet. This includes evocative renderings of other birds too, including kingfisher, bittern, osprey, kittiwake and lapwing.
The latter are roosting on the shingle near the lighthouse and marshes at the moment along with golden plover, and we hope to see the other species later in the year as well.
Danny Thompson who lived in Clopton for a few years in the late 1970’s and early 80’s is playing bass on the recording.

We were also intrigued to see a reference to Orford Ness on Caught by the River in the post about the re-release of The Weather Clock by July Skies: ‘July Skies is: Orford Ness, lost youth, Henry Moore, pylons across fields, abandoned airfields, Avebury, endless childhood summers, forgotten England, the romance of the heavens well after closing time, Super8, countryside, mornings in May, ruins, faded innocence, post-war Britain, skies of all seasons, trudging coastlines, Festival of Britain 1951, memories made with a Polaroid Landcam 103, overgrown follies, East Anglia, concrete precincts and tower blocks, suburbia, old Ordnance Survey maps, lost airmen, rustic charm, John Nash, poppy day, a half remembered smile, 1960s artwork by Harry Wingfield, John Berry, Martin Aitchinson, C F Tunnicliffe, Ronald Lampitt, BST, municipal parks at dusk, love, infatuation and loss.’

These have both reminded us just how much Orford Ness is a place that continually captures the imagination for so many people, both before and after they visit.

We regularly see the impact it has had through the amazing photos shared with us on social media, through paintings, drawings and visual artworks as well as through music and film.

Last year saw the National Trust celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Neptune fundraising project with a whole series of events, which included opportunities for people to share evocative sounds from the coastline all around the country.
Here at Orford, we also played host to a very special travelling beach hut, which enabled visitors to share some of their thoughts and memories about the coast on the recording equipment inside.
The recordings were used as part of a project called One and All, which saw three artists create different works around the theme of coast.
Former Heaven 17 frontman Martyn Ware created a soundscape called What Does the Sea Say and you can have a listen by clicking here.

Some lessons in Welsh…

In 2015, Orford Ness Shepherd Andrew Capell took part in one of the National Trust’s own schemes that helps teams working at our different places meet up to spend a few days working with each other and share ideas and knowledge.
Here, Andrew takes a look back at his experience at Hafod Y Llan in Wales.

Being a Shepherd and in Suffolk, we don’t have many other National Trust places close by that are home to a flock of sheep.
Wimpole Home Farm in Cambridgeshire is very similar to a farm I worked on for many years in Leicestershire, and I go to Hatfield Forest in Essex to help with their sheep around five times a year.

So when I had the opportunity to take part in the Ranger Link scheme, thinking about where I could go was the first challenge.
I had been reading about full-time shepherds in the French Alps and how they control grazing by moving the sheep around in the day time and penning them up at night, which I thought was a really interesting approach.

So when I heard that the team at Hafod Y Llan was taking this approach with conservation grazing on the Trust side of Snowdon, it got me thinking that it could be the place to go.
So I filled out the forms and asked Kite, my sheepdog, to cross his paws.

Andrew and his sheepdog, Kite

Andrew and his sheepdog Kite in the flat landscape of Orford Ness

After a few weeks, I got news that I had been granted the award and could start to make plans for my trip.
Trying to find a time when I was free was in itself a bit of a challenge, as I am responsible for our flock of sheep that are also used for conservation grazing on Orford Ness. But we found some time in late July that worked well, so off I went across the country from flat Suffolk to the hills and mountains of Wales.

My first day at Hafod Y Llan was about routine jobs such as weening lambs and moving the ram lambs off to some rented fields up the coast and then moving the ewes back to near Beddgelert.
When you work with sheep on a hill farm in Wales it can feel a bit like taking a very nice trip back in time.

The second day was all about what I had really wanted to see.
I met the shepherd looking after the sheep on the mountain and his dogs which we fitted GPS trackers -just in case they disappeared in the vast mountainous countryside!

Gathering the Welsh Mountain sheep on Watkin Path on the Hafod Y Llan farm. Photo: Joe Cornish

Gathering the Welsh Mountain sheep on Watkin Path on the Hafod Y Llan farm.
Photo: Joe Cornish

In the past, 2,000 sheep have grazed Snowdon and this has led to a lot of over-grazing, especially in the top third of the mountain.
The project here over the next few years is to use just 250 sheep grazing the bottom two thirds.

The sheep being used are the Welsh Mountain, a very small, hardy sheep that is also hefted.
As with all hefted sheep they are born in the valley and stay in the valley, which makes this job sound easy. But sheep will be sheep, and just like us, the grass is always greener on the other side!

So we set out from the office and left the farmyard behind us. It was one of those lovely Welsh July days when it rained all day and I never did get to see the top of the mountain…

After just over a mile, we stopped and did our first counts. As you look at the side of the mountain you have to imagine a line about two thirds up marked by rocky out crops, an old railway line that has long gone and the odd bush. Any sheep above that line are made note of.

After another mile of walking and another wet count, we took shelter in a hut not much bigger than an old red phone box.
In here was a most welcome hot drink and a note book. A quick look told us that the day before, 52 sheep were above the line and today it was down to 49.
So the call was made to get them down and put them in the pen overnight to try and teach them where they needed to stay. Off went the dogs followed by the shepherd and myself.

Now, if you have ever tried to move fast up a mountain in the rain after dogs and sheep it’s not easy!
I think I spent more time on the floor going down on my bum and not up on my feet. The dogs were amazing, my Kite is a good dog and here on the Ness he is the best. But for little wild sheep on a mountain you need a different kind of training.

The dogs would work on their own and a lot of time they were out of sight, it was so nice to hear that I am not the only member of staff that spends all day saying “lay down” and “away”.
After about an hour we had the offenders in the overnight pen and we made our way back to the office.

It was a very wet day even for July and I did not have one dry bit of clothing left but it was a really great day.

After a warm drink and a chat in the office it was time to use some new language skills and say goodbye in Welsh (that’s Hwyl fawr).

Getting to know the Ness

Each year, Suffolk’s Touching the Tide scheme funds a graduate trainee to work with them and gain valuable experience as they take their first steps on the career ladder.

As part of that role, the graduate trainee each year spends time also working with the RSPB and with the National Trust at Orford Ness.
This year’s Graduate Trainee is Catherine Mercer, who has just completed a two-week placement with the ranger team here on the Ness, and here she tells us about her experience:

Catherine Mercer

Although I have spent most of the summer working as a little tern warden for the RSPB, the final two weeks of my contract have brought me to Orford Ness, to learn a bit about working with the National Trust and managing such an unusual property.
I had never visited the site before, so it was great to be given the chance to explore and learn about both the history and the wildlife found here.

My first few days involved getting to know the site and I enjoyed a personal guided tour, first of the buildings that make it so unique and interesting, and second to see some of the local birdlife.
It was during one of these drives that I was lucky enough to see a teal grabbed and then dropped by a passing peregrine falcon.
There was also time for two nights of helping with moth trapping, giving me the chance to improve my very rusty moth ID skills.

After finding my feet, I have got stuck in to all manner of work, from brush cutting marshland to helping the volunteers as they welcome and chat to visitors.
As an aspiring conservationist, I’m always on the look out to learn new things that will help me in the pursuit of a more permanent job in the conservation sector.

Catherine Mercer2

In my two weeks at Orford Ness I’ve done everything from changing my first tyre, to driving a digger and learning how to manoeuvre a boat.
The staff here have been so generous with their time, taking every opportunity to teach me something new.
After a summer monitoring little tern colonies it has been great to get back into more practical work. The two weeks have flown by and it feels all too soon to be saying goodbye to Orford Ness.

We’re taking a digital voyage through sound!

A thoughtful new art and sound project will be coming to Orford Ness in the next week on its journey across some special coastal places. 

This month, a mysterious beach hut will be travelling across the UK, and taking in Orford Ness along the way.
The Ness has been chosen as one of just three places to host a very special, bright blue beach hut – but as always with Orford Ness, there is more to the beach hut than meets the eye!

Martyn Ware with the beach hut in Seaham. Picture credit: North News and Pictures Ltd

Martyn Ware with the beach hut in Seaham.
Picture credit: North News and Pictures Ltd

Inside the hut, an atmospheric sound track conjures up the sounds of the coast, whilst visitors are invited to step inside what is actually a miniature sound booth, where they can record their thoughts about what the coast means to them.

The soundtrack inside the hut will be created by leading sound artist Martyn Ware, formerly of Heaven17 and Human League, from recordings held by the British Library.
At the same time, the recordings that people make in the hut will be used by Martyn as contributions towards One and All – a digital voyage through sight, sound and sea.
One and All is a co-commission by Trust New Art, the National Trust’ contemporary arts programme, and sounduk.
Three leading artists working across sound, poetry and art will celebrate the powerful emotional and personal links that we all have to our coastal landscapes.
Martyn Ware, Owen Sheers and Tania Kovats have been invited to take inspiration from 50 years of Neptune, the National Trust’s campaign to acquire and care for coastal land.

The result will be an online digital artwork that combines audio visual and interactive landscapes.
It will invite the audience to explore a virtual coastal landscape and encounter three unique works that address our relationship with the sea.

Inspired by his childhood one-day-a-year holiday at a steelworks ‘charabanc outing’ on the Yorkshire coast, Martyn Ware’s What Does The Sea Say? will create a meditative dreamscape in which the listener can both participate and observe.

As part of the work’s creation, Martyn will travel with the beach hut to the three chosen locations.
After starting its journey in Seaham, County Durham, it will arrive with us on July 7 and stay for a week before moving on to Porthgain, Pembrokeshire.

The beach hut recordings, together with material from the British Library sound archive, will be reworked, in collaboration with film maker Ben Wigley, into a deeply resonant and emotionally affecting meditative three-dimensional soundscape about place and memory.
One and All will be available to experience online from November at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/oneandall

In search of “showerheads the size of plates”

Pippa Marland is currently completing a PhD at the University of Worcester.
Earlier this spring, her work brought her to Orford Ness to visit and discover more about this ‘almost-island’.
Here, Pippa shares some of her experience of visiting the Ness and what prompted her visit.

While carrying out research for a PhD on literary representations of ‘islandness’, it has been my practice to try to visit the islands I have written about.
So it was that in mid-March I travelled to the ‘almost-island’ of Orford Ness, which features in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

This work documents a walking tour of Suffolk, recounted by a narrator-figure who is, at times, overcome with horror at the ‘traces of destruction’ he finds in the landscape.
These traces are nowhere more apparent than when he reaches the Ness, with its eerie collection of abandoned military buildings and heaps of broken concrete and rusting metal.
The narrator finds himself puzzling over the enigma of the ‘beings’ who built the site as well as the purpose of “the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways.”

Writing my chapter on Sebald, I wondered which elements of this description could be found in the actual landscape and which had been transposed onto it from elsewhere to reflect the concerns of the writer.
Coming of age in the shadow of the German war crime trials and in the midst of what he saw as the failure of the German people to acknowledge their own suffering, Sebald was haunted by the damage done to human souls by war.
When I first read his description of the Ness, the image of “showerheads the size of plates” in particular brought to my mind accounts of the ‘shower block’ gas chambers of the concentration camps. I felt convinced that this image, combined with a more generalised sense of the horror of war, was at the heart of his account.

Before my visit, I got in touch with Grant Lohoar, the Coast and Countryside manager for East Suffolk, and asked him whether there were actually any showerheads on the Ness.
He thought not, and he was right: I didn’t find any.

But as I walked into a chamber adjacent to one of the ‘pagodas’, and saw circular metal lamp shades the size of dinner plates attached to metal pipes that ran up the walls and along the ceiling, I felt sure that I had found the source of Sebald’s description.

They provided me with a kind of ‘evidence’ that while his account of Orford Ness ranges imaginatively far beyond that place, and incorporates the transposed idea of the concentration camp, it still hinges upon the real, material presences in this landscape.

I imagined that my perception of the Ness might be coloured by Sebald’s sombre description. This proved not to be the case.

Walking in the warm spring sunshine, I saw lapwings, marsh harriers, pipits, gulls, rabbits and hares. Rust was blooming everywhere on shards of metal, and yellow lichens brightened the grey of the concrete.

I felt an intense awareness of ongoing processes of life, along with a pervasive sense of peace. I discovered what an extraordinary and rewarding place Orford Ness is to visit, so rich in human and natural histories, and more than able to reveal a whole range of different meanings to anyone fortunate enough to walk its pathways.

My thanks to Grant Lohoar for welcoming me to the Ness, and for sharing with me some of his immensely detailed knowledge of the place.

We need your votes!

Orford Ness Ranger David Mason shares some exciting news for the Ness – and makes a plea for your votes too!

Vote Now!

The winter on Orford Ness is a great time for wildlife but as the days lengthen, migrants birds return to breed and lambs are born, our spirits are lifted by the sound of birdsong and bleating.

We have also been greatly cheered by the news that we have been chosen as finalists in the conservation category of the 2015 Natura 2000 awards, as partners in the ‘Alde-Ore Estuary – Securing a sustainable future for wildlife’ LIFE project.

The project transformed the water management systems in the marshes and saline lagoons at Orford Ness and RSPB Havergate Island, creating new and improved habitat for avocet, spoonbill and starlet sea anemone. It also helped to protect the fragile vegetated shingle habitats on the 10 mile long shingle spit at Orford Ness.
We have already seen that the wildlife of the two sites is thriving as a result.

The main categories at the awards are judged by an expert panel and will be announced at a ceremony in Brussels in May. The Alde-Ore Estuary project has been placed in the Conservation category.
In addition to these, there is also Citizens award which is open to all for voting.
Competition is fierce, so we would be thrilled to receive your vote!
You can easily place your vote by using this link: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/natura2000/awards/application-2015/award-finalists/index_en.htm

Voting closes at midnight on 6th May – the night before another important election here in the UK!

Natura 2000 is the centrepiece of the European Union’s nature and biodiversity policy. Established under the EU’s Birds Directive and Habitats Directive, it is an EU-­wide network of more than 27,000 terrestrial and marine sites, covering around 18% of land area and substantial parts of the surrounding seas.

The aim of the network is to assure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species. Functioning ecosystems protected by Natura 2000 benefit human health, society and the economy.

Natura 2000 plays an important part in the conservation of the habitats and species in the UK and particularly on the Suffolk coast where there is an extensive network of wonderful wildlife areas.
The National Trust’s Orford Ness and RSPB’s Havergate Island are part of the Alde-Ore Estuary Special Protection Area (SPA) for breeding, wintering and migrating birds under the Birds Directive, the Orfordness-Shingle Street Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for the vegetated shingle habitats and the Alde, Ore and Butley Estuaries SAC for their coastal lagoons, saltmarsh and mudflats under the Habitats Directive.