Seeking the eerie in East Anglia

For the latest issue of Ernest Journal, editor Jo Tinsley and photographer Colin Nicholls took a road trip along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast in a converted RAF ambulance named George. Their journey took them to the spit of Orford Ness – a place of military secrets, flooded laboratories and rusting machinery on the shingle.


Early morning, we stuff our pockets with pastries then hitch a lift with the first ferry of the day to Orford Ness. With North Sea squalls that can roll over the spit without warning, unidentified heaps of metal strewn about and the possibility of unexploded ordnance, the sprawling site takes some stewarding. We meet lead ranger David Mason and clamber into the back of his old Land Rover, which has a bird’s nest in the cup holder, then drive over to a row of red brick buildings.

In 1915, the Royal Flying Corps established an experimental airfield on the marshes, assembling this single line of ancillary buildings, known as ‘the street’, and running a narrow-gauge railway down to the jetty. Some of the buildings now house exhibitions; some have been demolished for safety reasons; others are empty, marking the history of the site but left to decay.

David tells us the site was important in the development of photography for aerial reconnaissance and in the use of high speed cameras in military testing. At the back of one room, we stumble upon what was once the world’s fastest camera: a revolving barrel drum that captured fast-moving objects, such as nuclear bomb casing hurled at walls. The black paint has peeled, as if its bubbled off in the heat. “The camera was capable of capturing 3,000 frames per second. The engine turned so fast, you had to put it out with a fire extinguisher,” David tells us.
We drive on, crossing Stony Ditch, a tidal creek that separates the marsh from the shingle bank. A loose skein of spoonbills flies overhead and we pull over to silently watch them.

We stop at the Bomb Ballistics building, built in 1933 to house state-of-the-art equipment used to record the flight of bombs, then climb up to the roof to get a lay of the land. Looking north, I can just make out the white golf ball of Sizewell and a Martello Tower – one of numerous coastal defences that pepper the coastline.


In the middle distance is Cobra Mist, where a fan of radar antennae was once orientated towards Moscow. An experimental radar team first arrived on the spit in 1935, and the next four decades became a time of intense activity, as competing devices were brought forward, many cobbled together using the materials to hand. The tracking device used to receive and examine signals transmitted from Sputnik I, Russia’s first satellite, was built using a pine trunk, gun mounting and yacht rigging. Begun in 1968, Cobra Mist wasn’t operational for long. Plagued by a severe 'noise' problem of an undetermined origin, rumoured to be atmospheric interference or a Russian trawler jamming the signal, it was shut down in 1973. It later became home to the BBC World Service until broadcasting ceased in 2010.

There’s a large circular structure on the shingle below. “People have suggested various uses, but we just don’t know exactly what it was used for,” says David. He points to a pile of buckled metal nearby, which may have been some kind of carriage used on a track mounted on top of the ring, perhaps used to rotate a radar device. “In some ways it’s more intriguing not to solve some mysteries.”

The vantage point highlights the complex sequence of ridges (‘fulls’) and valleys (‘swales’) playing out across the shingle. Orford Ness is a ‘storm beach’, David tells us. In winter, waves throw shingle up onto the beach. The smaller stones are thrown higher and further, and a ‘berm’ builds up along the front. Over time, the shingle stabilises, the smaller stones trapping moisture and organic matter, and plants begin to colonise the ridges with false oat grass, sea campion and lichen. These processes have shaped the land since prehistoric times and through these simple actions, the ridges become a document not just of the tides, but of the oscillations in sea level over centuries. It shows the ageing of the spit like lines inside a tree trunk.


Driving into the off-limits area, with David as our guide, the scene grows wilder and more ruinous. We pull up to explore the laboratories, six bunkers built between the 1950s-1960s to put parts of nuclear weapons through environmental testing. Each ‘lab’ was set up differently: one had a ‘drop test’ chamber to replicate an aircraft bomb bay, another boasted a centrifuge for assessing the effect of g-forces, and one had a thermal chamber for subjecting the weapon to extreme temperatures.

There have been discussions about renovating the buildings, but they were ruins when the Trust bought the site and it has been decided to let them continue to disintegrate. Owl pellets litter the floor; salt stalactites drip from enamel light fittings, tipping them at angles; jackdaws build nests in rusted filing cabinets using frayed wires. Once, these chambers were used for ear-shattering experiments, now they make quieter sounds: the scratch of seagulls in air conditioning shafts, panicked wing beats as a raft of pigeons flies out. “The general policy has been to leave things alone,” says David. “The intention is to allow natural processes to take place.”

The floor of Lab 1 is carpeted with bright green foliage and rainwater has filled the drop testing pits. At first glance, the pools appear shallow but they’re a disconcerting six metres deep. Moss streaks the concrete walls and rusted vents creek in the wind. “You get strange sounds here,” says David. “The wind creates its own opera, blowing through holes in the metal girders and playing the building like a flute.”

Between 1953 and 1971, the spit was home to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE), which simulated the stresses and strains nuclear warheads might experience in actual use. The two AWRE pagodas (Labs 4 and 5) are unique to Orford Ness: reinforced structures topped with a solid concrete tray filled with shingle. They were designed to absorb and vent explosive forces and deflect debris from accidental explosions downwards. Inside, engineers could change the climate, simulate the pressure of being under the sea or at altitude and subject the weapons to vibrations using giant speakers.

In The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald approaches these strange structures with caution. “The beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma,” he writes, “as were the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers”. He compares himself to some “latter-day stranger” wandering around scraps of metal and defunct machinery, imagining himself “amidst the remains of our own civilisations after its extinction in some future catastrophe.”

The sense of enigma lingers. “There’s a sense that we will never fully know what happened here,” says David.

Ernest Journal

You can read more of Jo’s adventures in East Anglia in issue 7 of Ernest Journal, on sale now (www.ernestjournal.co.uk/shop/print-issue-7). Jo’s transport and accommodation – George the converted RAF ambulance – was provided by Quirky Campers (www.quirkycampers.co.uk). Photography by Colin Nicholls.