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.