Orford Ness - Secrets Revealed

Ann Hills on conflict in trust at Orford Ness

Orford Ness – a nine mile split of shingle and marshland on the East Coast of Suffolk – used to be 'Top Secret'. In this starkly beautiful, now tranquil, landscape, the military conducted covert experiments into aerial combat tactics, and the testing of airborne bombs from 1916 onwards. Sections of hangers, series of huts, sheds and workshops survive from the World Wars. Here Watson-Watt carried out some of his earliest experiments into radar in 1935.

In the mid-1950s, the Ness became a base for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, testing the trigger mechanism of the atomic bomb. Even today, in a strange building still known as Cobra Mist, after short-lived Anglo-American defence project, the BBC World Service retains a token staff. Their work is not, apparently, fodder for spies.

But now the new owners of 1,550 acres – the National Trust – are preparing the Ness for limited public access next year. Their task poses a tricky balancing act between guarding the important natural history of the site and the treatment of surviving barrack huts and store buildings, as well as the military testing cells and model bombing ranges.

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