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:

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.

Photography tours and guided groups

In addition to our guided walks and conservation mornings, which you can find out about here, we are once again offering photography tours and the option to pre-book a walking tour.

Always popular, we’d recommend booking early for our photography tours.
These visits offer the opportunity to see the Ness in a whole new way, as you spend the day with a professional photographer and a National Trust conservation ranger, visiting various parts of the site, including the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment’s famous ‘pagodas’ and laboratories – normally out of bounds. 

Photo tours

Your guides will help you get the most out of this opportunity to get some unique shots, and to hone your skills in this rare and unusual landscape and with a maximum of 12 places on each tour, you’ll get plenty of chances to chat and ask questions.

Photography tours will be taking place on April 18, June 13, August 22 and October 17 – which of the seasons would you most like to photograph the Ness in?
We’ll take you over on our ferry boat, Octavia, at 9am and will leave the Ness on the last boat at 5pm. Wrap up warm (even in summer!) and wear sturdy shoes as you’ll be doing a lot of walking throughout the day.
The cost of these tours is £50 for National Trust members and £70 for non-members.To book your spot call 01394 450900.

As well as photography tours, we also offer the opportunity to book a guided tour of the Ness for large groups (up to a maximum of 36 people). These tours are led by one of our conservation rangers, who can tell you more about the history of the site and the rare and fragile wildlife here, and how we care for it. Available from April to June, or in October, you can book a half day tour for £13 per NT member (£18 non-member) or a full day tour for £17 per NT member (£22 non-member).

World Wetlands Day

Orford Ness Ranger David Mason takes a look at World Wetlands Day, a day that is focused on celebrating wetlands around the world.

Each year on February 2, World Wetlands Day takes place to mark the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, commonly known as the Ramsar Convention, is a global intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international co-operation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. It is the only global treaty to focus on one single ecosystem.

Orford Ness is a Ramsar site as part of the Alde-Ore Estuary designation and is a fantastic haven for wetland wildlife of all sorts, from brent geese to bryozoa, spoonbills to starlet sea anemone, wigeon to water voles.

Starlet Sea Anemone

Starlet Sea Anemone


Avocets with chicks

Avocets with chicks


Like many other Ramsar sites, Orford Ness is also protected under national schemes as a Site of Special Scientific (SSSI) and National Nature Reserve, and as part of the European Union’s Natura 2000 network.

You can find out more about World Wetlands Day on the dedicated Ramsar website.

Our opening times for 2015

Our opening times vary according to the seasons and we also regularly host special events and guided tours, so we hope you’ll find the information about our opening dates and times for 2015 useful to help plan your visit.

Tickets for our ferry boat ‘Octavia’ tend to sell out early, so we’d advise arriving early to avoid disappointment.

Here are the key dates for 2015.

  • April 4 until June 27 – open Saturdays only
  • Tuesday June 30 until Saturday September 26 – open Tuesdays to Saturdays
  • October 3 until October 31 – open Saturdays only

The National Trust ferry boat will leave Orford Quay to take visitors over to the Ness from 10am until 2pm. The last ferry to return visitors to the Quay will be at 5pm.

Special events and guided tours

Most of our visitors enjoy a self-guided tour along our marked visitor routes and this can be done on any of our opening days, taking in the unique Orford Ness landscape.

On certain dates throughout the year there are opportunities to join us for a more in-depth visit, with guided tours to help you find out more about the history of the site, or if you are a keen photographer, we have special tours and overnight stays to help you get the perfect shot. There is an additional charge for these visits and there are limited places. We haven’t finalised the dates for the 2015 photography tours yet, but will post them as soon as we can.

On some days, we also offer the opportunity to travel around the site without having to walk the whole way – ideal for those who are unable to walk long distances. Our tractor and trailer bus will stop at key points around the site, although this not a guided tour.

Dates for your diary:

Bombs and Beasties Guided Walks:  May 16, June 20, July 11, August 15 and September 12.
Spend time with one of our ranger team and learn more about this special place, taking in the unique military history as well as the incredibly rare and fragile wildlife that call Orford Ness their home.
Booking is essential, NT members £17, non-members £22. Meet 9.30am at Orford Quay, depart approx. 4pm. Limited to 24 places.

Tractor and Trailer Bus: July 4, August 1 and September 5
A trailer bus, stopping around key points on the main trail aimed primarily at those
visitors unable to walk more than short distances. This is not a guided tour.
Booking is advised. NT Members £7.00; Non NT Members £12.00. Children under
17 half price. Under 5s free. Meet 9.55am or 1.55pm prompt at Orford Quay.
Duration approx. 3hrs. Limited to 24 places.

Moth Mornings Saturdays: July 25 and August 15
See conservation in action by spending up to an hour with volunteers from the
Landguard Bird Observatory to learn about this important part of our work.
Normal admission applies. Meet at the Rangers Office, opposite the lavatories, at 11.00am. The Rangers’ Office is 20 mins walk from the landing stage – cross on ferry by 10.20am Subject to weather.

Bird Ringing Mornings Saturdays: September 19 and October 10
See conservation in action by spending up to an hour with volunteers from the
Landguard Bird Observatory to learn about this important part of our work
Normal admission applies.Meet at the Rangers Office, opposite the lavatories, at 11.00am. The Rangers’ Office is 20 mins walk from the landing stage – cross on ferry by 10.20am. Subject to weather.

Group Visits – Club, Society, Association or just family and friends
We have options for guided or self guided, pedestrian or vehicular tours throughout
the year for parties of 12 to 24. Subject to availability. Pre-booked only.

For more information about our special events and tours, visit:

Small, but beautiful

A group of expert marine biologists have been working on the Ness lately, all in search of some very tiny members of the natural world.
Ranger David Mason explains more.

The natural world is a constant marvel and there are many wow moments when its secrets are revealed, especially when experts in a field which seems obscure, mostly because things are small or inaccessible, visit your site and reveal what lies beneath.

The latest of these moment occurred when our friends from Seasearch visited Orford Ness recently with expert marine biologists in search of Bryozoa.
What the heck are those I hear you cry! Or was that just me?
Wikipedia tells us…
‘The Bryozoa, also known as Polyzoa, Ectoprocta or commonly as moss animals,[5] are a phylum of aquatic invertebrate animals. Typically about 0.5 millimetres (0.020 in) long, they are filter feeders that sieve food particles out of the water using a retractable lophophore, a “crown” of tentacles lined with cilia. Most marine species live in tropical waters, but a few occur in oceanic trenches, and others are found in polar waters. One class lives only in a variety of freshwater environments, and a few members of a mostly marine class prefer brackish water. Over 4,000 living species are known. One genus is solitary and the rest colonial. [5] Brusca; Brusca. “21: The Lophophorate Phyla”. The Invertebrates.’

Generally speaking, Bryozoa usually look like encrustations on sticks, roots, seaweed, rocks etc, and they are prey for a variety of other marine animals like sea slugs, starfish and sea urchins.
Both underwater and under the microscope their true beauty is revealed as each cell comes to life.


“Bryozoa”, from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur, 1904

You may have seen one of these on the beach, as Hornwrack is a colony of these creatures.

© Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0

© Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0

These creatures can be indicators of environmental change, and even today, species previously unrecorded in our waters are being found all the time.

Bryozoa can be so tiny that more than one species can found colonising together, such as on this piece of bladderwrack, which is home to three different species.

Along with the Natural History Museum, who will be collating the data, Seasearch have set up monitoring schemes around the country, including here on Orford Ness, to record how these species colonise sites over time.

Several of our volunteers helped the Seasearch team construct a series of monitoring stations, which use acrylic glass plates that encourage colonisation, but also can be easily viewed and monitored over time.




These stations will be located in various water bodies on the Ness and checked periodically to study what is here, and measure how long it takes for various known species to colonise the plates and when new species arrive.

This will help create baseline data for future studies to build on.


On the trail of water voles

For a species that is absolutely flourishing on Orford Ness, water voles are also one of the most elusive, and like to keep themselves well hidden.

But like most wildlife, if you know what to look for, there are plenty of clues to be found about what they’ve been up to and where they’ve been.
Ranger David Mason is the chief water vole detective on site and here he shares some of the signs that he looks out for to monitor these shy mammals that are so at home here.

The water vole population on the Ness is one that is thriving, and their tracks and signs can be seen along most of the ditches including the new ones put in during the LIFE project.

Both The Mammal Society and The Wildlife Trusts describe how the numbers of water voles in Britain have severely declined and that they are legally protected.
Loss of habitat is one of the main reasons for this decline in numbers, as well as through predation from the introduced American mink.
Water voles are thought to have disappeared from more than 90% of their former sites, so it is great to see them doing so well on the Ness, particularly in the new habitat areas created by the LIFE+ project that was completed this year.

So what are the signs we’re looking for when we’re monitoring water vole activity?
This photo shows short pieces of fresh vegetation cut at 45 degrees, some dung, and lots of footprints.

But it would be easy to miss these signs, so we keep our eyes peeled!
So, once we have found a hole in the bank….

Water voles Nov14b

…a pile of dung, which the females deposit in small piles to mark their territory, usually on a prominent feature like a plank bridge, a lump of earth  or at the junction of two ditches…

Water voles Nov14c

…or a footprint in the mud at the edge of a ditch…

Water voles Nov14d

…we can stake the area out to confirm our suspicions about who is responsible and then we can place infra-red trail cameras that are triggered by movement and can see in the dark, so we have been able to capture night time footage of the voles in action, which you can see here.
Easy when you know how!


A hidden history

As you’d probably expect, National Trust places around the country have been homes to a huge range of archaeological finds over the years.
Indeed, just a few miles away from Orford Ness, Sutton Hoo was the site of one of the most significant finds ever made.

But whilst the history that the Ness is famous for is more recent, it is hugely important, both to help us learn and reflect on the military ambitions of the past and to help shape the future management of what is now an internationally valued nature reserve.

Ranger David Mason tells us about a recent archaeological survey into some of the Ness’ military occupation during the First World War.

“Here on the Ness, whilst we are constantly vigilant for the unexploded ordnance that this former military testing site is littered with – and that emerges from the depths of the shingle every now and then – many of our historical artefacts are already above ground.

The site is littered with military debris, and whilst those huge blocks of concrete and broken pieces of metal could once be considered just the messy remains of the Ness’ past, they now provide interesting habitats, shelter and shade for the wildlife that thrives here.

In an area of wet grassland along the Green Route, which is now occupied by short-eared owls, marsh harriers, otters and avocet, there is a hidden history marked by a group of gorse bushes and brambles where a family of stonechats greet passers-by.

A scatter of pottery from 1917, a line of wooden posts (possibly part of a latrine), some concrete foundations near a bend in the river wall and a grid of shallow drainage trenches are all that remains of the once busy Chinese Labour Corps and Prisoner of War camps that occupied this part of Kings Marsh during the First World War.
A recent archaeological survey found and recorded some of these remains.


Concrete foundations from a long-gone building

Pottery remains

Pottery remains

These groups provided a labour force that worked on the airfield and river walls but little is known about their lives.
The Chinese Wall, an internal flood defence that divided the Airfield from Kings Marsh, was named after the Chinese labourers that worked here.
Paddy Heazell’s book Most Secret – The Hidden History of Orford Ness refers to them digging blocks of clay and passing them hand to hand.
The bank you see today is a much larger version, built by machine after the 1953 floods.
The line of the old wall is marked on the roadside by one half of a concrete flood-gate into which boards could be dropped to protect the airfield.
There is an aerial photo of the camps in the Information Building on the Ness and in the National Trust guidebook showing a group of tents, but this one shows a group of large huts in the same place.


All of the buildings have disappeared and we know very little about the people that lived in them.”
We would love to know and understand more about the lives of the people who lived and worked here, and are always grateful when people get in touch to tell us about their own knowledge of the history of this special place.
Please do send us a comment if you think you can add to our history files.

The ABC of a SSSI

One of the most unusual coastal sites in the UK, Orford Ness is also one of the most unusual places cared for by the National Trust.

A place where military history and rare wildlife come together. Photo: David Crawshaw

A place where military history and rare wildlife come together.
Photo: David Crawshaw

A National Nature Reserve (NNR), the Ness has been looked after by the Trust since 1993.
There are parts of the history of this special place that are shrouded in mystery, such as its former life as a military weapons testing site. We have learnt a lot about that history over the years, but there are some secrets about the work that took place here that we will perhaps never know.

Looking at the Ness as a haven for nature and wildlife, it is a place with so many national and international designations that whilst there are no secrets about the special nature of this land, it can be a confusing subject.

Orford Ness is managed principally as a conservation site and we work hard to find a balance between that conservation work and ensuring access for visitors, which is why we have specified visitor routes and take bird breeding seasons into account when planning our opening times.
It is a delicate balance with a site that is recognised on the international stage for the value of the wildlife and nature here.

From breeding sites for wetland and ground-nesting birds, to the rare and constantly changing shingle coastline to unusual plantlife and rare aquatic invertebrates, Orford Ness is a valuable place that we are caring for both now, and for the future.

Such is the recognition of the Ness, that reading the list of designations it holds can feel a bit like a trip to the opticians – as well as an NNR, it is also a SSSI site and holds GCR, SAC, SPA, Ramsar and Natura 2000 designations.

So what do all those designations mean for the site and the wildlife here?
Here’s our whistle-stop tour of the ABC of a SSSI!

NNR – National Nature Reserve
Natural England is the body that will declare an NNR in England and it manages around two thirds of them, with the rest managed by approved organisations, which includes the National Trust.
Natural England describe NNRs as: “Initially established to protect sensitive features and to provide ‘outdoor laboratories’ for research. Their purpose has widened since those early days. As well as managing some of our most pristine habitats, our rarest species and our most significant geology, most Reserves now offer great opportunities to the public as well as schools and specialist audiences to experience England’s natural heritage.”
You can find out more by visiting the Natural England website.

SSSI – Site of Special Scientific Interest
Like many NNRs, Orford Ness is also a SSSI, again, this is a designation given to a site by Natural England, who say: “SSSIs are the country’s very best wildlife and geological sites. They include some of our most spectacular and beautiful habitats: large wetlands teeming with waders and waterfowl, winding chalk rivers, gorse and heather-clad heathlands, flower-rich meadows, windswept shingle beaches, remote uplands, moorland and peat bog.”
Just like Natural England, we believe that these special places, such as the Ness, need to be cared for in a way that respects wildlife and ensures it will be there for benefit of future generations.
You can find out more about SSSI here.

SAC – Special Area of Conservation
All SAC sites in England are SSSI and this is a special protection given under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. The addition of an SAC designation means that some or all of the wildlife habitats are particularly valued in a European context.
The designation information for Orford Ness says the site was chosen because: “it supports some of the largest and most natural sequences in the UK of shingle vegetation affected by salt spray”.
It is a requirement that SAC sites are managed favourably for conservation.
You can find out more about SAC from Natural England or from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

GCR – Geological Conservation Review
The Geological Conservation Review was launched in 1977 as a major initiative to identify the most important geological sites in Britain.
The initiative is described by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee as: “The GCR was designed to identify those sites of national and international importance needed to show all the key scientific elements of the Earth heritage of Britain. These sites display sediments, rocks, fossils, and features of the landscape that make a special contribution to our understanding and appreciation of Earth science and the geological history of Britain, which stretches back hundreds of millions of years.”
You can find out more at GCR by visiting the JNCC website.

SPA – Special Protection Area
This designation is all about birds and birdlife. Using criteria that were set by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, SPA sites are also SSSI.
Natural England describe SPA as: “… an area of land, water or sea which has been identified as being of international importance for the breeding, feeding, wintering or the migration of rare and vulnerable species of birds found within the European Union. SPAs are European designated sites, classified under the European Wild Birds Directive which affords them enhanced protection.”
There is an incredible array of birds that are attracted to Orford Ness, and the habitat available to them has been greatly enhanced thanks to the completion of a major project that has been underway for the last few years.
We are fortunate to also have a team of British Trust for Ornithology-registered volunteers who monitor the birds at Orford Ness. There are often opportunities for our visitors to meet them and see them at work as they ring the birds and collect valuable data.
You can find out more about SPA by visiting the Natural England website.

An international agreement signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, this agreement is focused on the conservation of wetland sites of international importance.
Orford Ness is protected under this agreement for its wetlands and marshes that offer vital habitats for breeding birds and wildlife.
Ramsar status can be given using a number of different criteria, one of which is if the site “supports vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered species of threatened ecological communities.”
You can read more about the designation on the Natural England website or visit the Ramsar website.

Natura 2000
Last, but certainly not least, is Natura 2000.
This is a network of sites across Europe and designed to ensure the survival in the long-term of Europe’s most valuable and threatened habitats.
Natura 2000 is a network of SPA and SAC sites and was created in 1992.
Orford Ness is home to a such a wide range of species that as already listed, it is both an SPA and SAC site as well as being part of the Natura 2000 network.
You can find out more about Natura 2000 here.

Take a closer look

Summer holidays may be over for the year, but there are still plenty of opportunities to visit the Ness for one of our special events and tours.
Whether your interest is photography or learning more about our conservation work, why not consider joining us for a more in-depth experience.

Photo tours

Each year we hold a number of guided photography tours, led by a professional photographer and one of our rangers. The tours offer a chance to see the Ness in new and unusual ways, as well as getting up close to some of the wildlife that thrives here.
We also spend time in and around the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment buildings and the distinctive ‘pagodas’ for a chance to capture some unique images of these unusual buildings.
Booking for the tours is essential and our next dates for a full-day tour are Saturday October 4 and Saturday October 18 and they cost £50 for NT members and £60 for non-members. We’ll take you over to the Ness on the National Trust boat, Octavia at 9am and return to Orford Quay at 5pm.
We’ll be walking long distances throughout the day, so only bring equipment you can carry and sufficient clothing for all day outdoors on what can be a very windy site!
You can book your place on the two remaining tours of the year by calling 01394 450900.

On September 21, the Marine Conversation Society will be holding a beach clean-up as part of the International Coastal Clean-up, which takes places in more than 70 countries.
We’ll be meeting at the barrier beyond the Martello Tower at Slaughden, near Aldeburgh at 10am. You’ll need to dress for what could be mucky work, but equipment will be provided. Please register to let us know you’ll be taking part by calling us on 01394 450900.

In both September and October, there are chances to find out more about the work of the our bird ringers.
We are lucky to have a team of volunteer ringers who carry out this important work on the Ness and you’ll be able to spend an hour with them to see them at work.
There’s no additional charge for these, just meet outside the Rangers Office at 11am on either September 27 or October 11.