When I was first in Orford, it was forbidden to approach ‘the island’, but now there was no longer any obstacle to going there, since, some years before, the Ministry of Defence had abandoned secret research at that site. One of the men sitting idly on the harbour wall offered to take me over for a few pounds and fetch me later after I had had a look around. As we crossed the river in his blue-painted boat, he told me that people still mostly avoided Orfordness. Even the beach fishermen, who were no strangers to solitude, had given up night-fishing out there, allegedly because it wasn’t worth their while, but in reality because they couldn’t stand the god-forsaken loneliness of that outpost in the middle of nowhere, and in some cases even became emotionally disturbed for some time.’
So begins WG Sebald’s account of his trip to Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast in his book The Rings of Saturn. It is an extraordinary work, not quite fact, not quite fiction, in which Sebald uses a walk along the coastline of Suffolk as the starting point for a deeply melancholic meditation on time, memory, identity and the transience of human existence. One of the most striking passages is his description of Orford Ness, a long shingle spit at the mouth of the estuary of the rivers Alde and Or. After rowing him across the river, the fisherman leaves Sebald who sets out to explore the island:
The day was dull and oppressive, and there was so little breeze that not even the ears of the delicate quaking grass were nodding. It was as if I was passing through an undiscovered country, and I still remember that I felt, as the same time, both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. I had not a single thought in my head. With each step that I took the emptiness within and the emptiness without grew ever greater and the silence more profound. Perhaps that was why I was frightened almost to death when a hare that had been hiding in the tufts of grass by the wayside started up, right at my feet, and shot off down the rough track before darting sideways, this way and that, into the field.
Orford Ness had been, for more than half a century, from the First World War to the Cold War, a top-secret military research facility. Here were conducted experiments on parachutes, radar, aerial photography, ballistics and bombs, including, in the 1950s, the atom bomb. The military finally pulled out of the site in the mid-1980s. But the infrastructure remained, as Sebald describes:
From a distance the concrete shells, shored up with stones, in which for most of my lifetime hundreds of boffins had been at work devising new weapons systems, looked (probably because of their odd conical shape) like the tumuli in which the mighty and the powerful were buried in prehistoric times with all their tools and utensils and silver and gold. My sense of being on ground intended for purposes transcending the profane was heightened by a number of buildings that resembled temples or pagoda, which seemed quite out of place in these military installations. But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived here were an enigma, as was 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. Where and in what time I truly was that day in Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.
Sebald visited Orford Ness in 1992. The following year it was acquired by the National Trust. Since then, many of the buildings have been demolished, many others placed out of bounds to the public because of their frail state (The pagodas, for instance, were off-limits when I was there). Whole areas are also restricted because of the presence of unexploded bombs. Much of it has been been turned into a nature reserve (which can place further restrictions on public access; currently, most of the site is cordoned off to protect new hatchlings). Nevertheless one can still sense the ‘otherness’ of which Sebald speaks. Orford Ness is certainly one of the strangest places I have visited, desolate and derelict, haunting and wild, beautiful and bleak. I will write properly about it another time (probably when I have had the chance to visit it again). In the meantime some photos that might give a sense of the strangeness, desolation and beauty, too, of Orford Ness.. There are more photos on my photography website Light Infusion, and on Flickr and 500px.
Love the book and this piece – haunting. Photo of pylons in mist/heat haze makes me think of strange gods walking the land.
If you want to visit the lighthouse which is on the seaward side of Orford Ness spit email email@example.com or visit the orfordnesslighthouse website. Visitors are encouraged to visit before it is taken by the sea. The National Trust don’t allow their vistors to go to the lighthouse, despite being Grade 2 Listed, so a separate visit has to be arranged. You won’t be disappointed. Although you won’t be able to get into other buildings, the walk there will go through the main parts of the Ness that are otherwise open to the public on a very restricted basis.
You’re right about the diminishing access. The lady in the ticket office tells you you have to stick to the marked trails. They only tell you once you’ve landed on the island that two of the three trails are closed and the third is severely curtailed. There’s so little true wilderness left in Southern England. Maybe we need a Kinder Trespass style campaign of civil disobedience to open up Orford a bit more.