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Bombs and Bunkers at Orford Ness

An odd clash of human and natural landscapes on Europe's largest shingle spit.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Paved roads and shingle

Landscape Shingle, marshes and abandoned military buildings

Suggested map Guidebook and map from National Trust ticket booth at Orford Quay

Start/finish TM 425495

Dog friendliness Dogs not allowed

Parking Orford Quay pay-and-display car park

Public toilets At car park and on Orford Ness

Notes Orford Ness can only be visited by taking National Trust ferry crossing from Orford Quay. Operates most days at height of summer and Saturdays from April to October (call 01394 450900 to check times)

1 Arriving on Orford Ness, follow the red trail, which is waymarked with red arrows painted on to the road surface. It is essential to stick to the authorised route, not only to avoid disturbing wildlife but also to keep out of the way of unexploded ordnance, which remains a potential danger.

2 The trail begins by the wall of the River Ore, looking out over marshes where cattle graze on the site of a World War One airfield. In late summer, once the birds have finished nesting, you can continue along the river on the green trail through an area of marshes and lagoons. The main trail turns away from the river at this point and heads for an information building in the former telephone exchange. Look inside at the displays on the history of Orford Ness and the large aerial photograph of the shingle spit. Behind the building is an observation platform with views over the Stony Ditch creek and the strange pagoda-type structures of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, which operated here at the height of the Cold War.

3 Follow the trail along the High Street and bear right over a Bailey bridge to cross Stony Ditch, with salt marsh to either side. Fork right here to head for the Black Beacon, then head towards the beach, passing a police tower on the line of the old perimeter fence. Now turn left to walk along the shingle. The trail heads inland again when you come to a lighthouse and an old coastguard look-out that the National Trust plans to restore. Walk across the shingle to the Bomb Ballistics Building.

4 Walk back over the Bailey bridge and retrace your steps to the jetty.

Of all the walks in this book, none can match the eerie appeal of this walk on Orford Ness. This is a hostile and lonely place, a shingle spit 10 miles (16km) long and growing at the rate of more than 15yds (14m) a year. Its isolation made it a perfect site for military testing, and for much of the 20th century Orford Ness was a secret defence establishment where major advances were made in the fields of radar, military photography, bombs and atomic weapons. The army has gone but the buildings remain as permanent reminders of another age. Barn owls nest in the abandoned barracks. Little terns lay their eggs on the beach. The combination of wilderness and derelict buildings is strangely compelling and is what makes Orford Ness such a special place.

Black Beacon is a marine navigation beacon dating from 1928. The upper floors provide displays on birdlife and there is an elevated viewing area. The road to the right leads to the laboratories where Britain's early atomic weapons were tested, although it is claimed that no nuclear material was involved. You can walk right inside Laboratory 1, where the first test took place in 1956, but the rest of the AWRE site is still out of bounds to visitors.

The Bomb Ballistics Building was built in 1933 as the nerve centre of Britain's bomb-testing programme. You can climb on to the roof for views over the Ness, stretching north towards Sizewell, south towards Felixstowe and inland to Orford Castle. The large grey building to the north, known as Cobra Mist, was a top secret Anglo-American satellite research base alleged to have been involved in tracking UFOs (unidentified flying objects) before its closure in 1973. It now houses transmitters for the BBC World Service, which also uses the tall radio masts beyond.

Before you leave this eerie place, try to imagine the contribution that Orford Ness has made to 20th-century British history. It was here in the 1930s that Sir Robert Watson-Watt and a small team of scientists took the first steps in the development of the air defence system which came to be known as radar. Without the work carried out at Orford Ness, the outcome of the Battle of Britain might have been different and the course of World War Two may have changed. Something to think about as you take the ferry back to Orford.

Where to eat and drink

There are no facilities on Orford Ness, so it is essential to take plenty of water. The Jolly Sailor and the Old Warehouse at Orford Quay both serve good local fish and chips, as does the King's Head in Orford. Butley Orford Oysterage, on Market Hill, offers oysters from its own beds as well as smoked salmon, smoked trout, oyster soup, fish pie and pork and cockle stew.

While you're there

Orford Castle is a 12th-century Norman keep built by Henry II, with a spiral staircase leading to a tower offering wonderful views over Orford Ness. Orford itself is a lovely town to explore, with craft shops, smokehouses and a museum devoted to underwater exploration at Dunwich. Notice the newspaper kiosk on Market Hill, with an 'honesty box' for newspapers!


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