Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

12 November 2016

A visit to the old nuclear weapons development site at Orford Ness

MY FRIENDS Iain Chambers and Kate Romano recently invited me to go along with them to Orford Ness on the Suffolk Coast. It’s a long shingly spit of land, the northern end of which extends to Aldeburgh, out of sight in the aerial view below.

Orford Ness can be reached by car and then a very short ferry trip across the river Alde. It’s owned by the National Trust who run it as a nature reserve. Many people will also know it as the kind of mysterious forbidden area which might have appeared in an old film like Quatermass 2, because it’s where nuclear weapons research was once carried out. Rutted roads and crumbling buildings are all that remain of a busy scientific and engineering community.

Public access to Orford Ness is allowed during daylight hours on some days of the week: most of the year it’s limited to Saturdays only. You can look at the bunkers from the outside but you’re usually not allowed inside, in case a rusting piece of pipework falls on your head. We were lucky in being given supervised access to the insides of the bunkers, some of which are called ‘pagodas’. Here are a few of the photos I took.

Below is the outside of a pagoda. The heavy roof is supported on concrete pillars and this was to minimise damage in case of an explosion inside the building: the blast wave would be easily vented to the outside well above ground level.

Inside was rusting switch-gear and other equipment.

The pagoda seen across an expanse of wind-swept shingle.

Inside the remains of a laboratory and administrative block.

More old equipment, possibly the remains of a heat exchanger.

Inside a workshop. The more luxuriant vegetation on the right-hand side conceals a deep, water-filled trough. H-bomb casings would have been assembled here.

There was quite a lot to look at, but not much to hear. The railings of a small lookout tower hummed and whined in the brisk wind. Inside some of the bunkers and other buildings there was the occasional clatter from loose fittings on ceilings being blown to and fro. Wading birds called out. Otherwise, near silence.

Orford Ness is probably worth a visit during fine weather if you’re already a fan of bleak-looking, peripheral areas like Dungeness. The National Trust’s approach here is one of managed decay with a welcome lack of obtrusive signage.

For a livelier, though not fatal, dose of Cold War nostalgia, you might also wish to consider a visit to the bunker at Kelvedon Hatch in Essex. I’m a big fan of those leaflets you find in hotels advertising local attractions, often with a scowling child in a pirate’s hat on the front, or a man my age pretending to be a Viking – Grimwald the Grizzled.

However, Kelvedon Hatch’s flyer takes some beating, with its lurid photo of an H-bomb explosion:

I went a few years ago and had an enjoyable afternoon. Also, keep an eye out if you’re driving there for an old-school roadside cafe nearby. It’s built to resemble a log cabin and there are few places like that left now.