Oct 1st | The History & Wildlife of Orford Ness

David Fincham’s noisiest neighbours must be the seabirds and the waves crashing onto the pebble beach where he lives with his wife. He is a National Trust Coastal Ranger and acts as caretaker of the shingle spit off Suffolk’s coast known as Orford Ness.

Orford Ness is an internationally important site for Nature Conservation. Among its various titles, together with Havergate Island it is part of a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’, an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and is listed as of national importance geologically.

This seems hardly surprising as the spit comprises a number of valuable habitats for all kinds of wildlife – plants, birds and animals. These include rare wild flowers, plants and lichens; several species of birds of prey; a wide selection of seabirds and waders; many types of insects, a colony of lizards and mammals of all shapes and sizes including grey and common seals, along with a large herd of Chinese Water Deer.

Its remoteness made it ideal for secret wartime operations, and in 1929 the site was selected as the location for the Orfordness Beacon, one of the earliest experiments in long-range radio navigation which eventually led to the invention of radar. The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment had a base on the site, used for the environmental testing of components to be used in bombs, and the long buildings known as the “pagodas” were used for these experiments. Their roofs were designed to collapse inwards in the event of a serious accident, sealing the whole building with a lid of concrete and shingle.

The site was still owned by the Ministry of Defence in the 60s, all through the Cold War, and in the late 60s a top secret Anglo-American radar installation known as Cobra Mist was set up there. This closed in 1973 and from then on the site was used as a transmitting station run by the Foreign Office, and then in more recent times by the BBC’s World Service. The station has been disused since May 2012.

Orford Ness is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. Access is strictly controlled both to protect the fragile habitats and because of the continuing danger from the site’s former use by the military. You can get there by National Trust ferry from Orford Quay on designated open days. Visitors must keep to the tracks so as not to damage or disturb the wildlife, but from David Fincham’s account it is certainly worth the trip to enjoy the sights, sounds and atmosphere of this amazing place which sits right on our very doorstep!

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