Five thousand years ago the short, muddy River Alde flowed straight in to the North Sea, draining Suffolk’s coastal marshes. Then a spit began to form across its mouth, forcing the river to turn south. Over the centuries that spit lengthened as the tides sucked ever more shingle from the north. By the late Middle Ages it extended five miles down the coast, curtailing the sea trade of what was then the mildly prosperous port of Orford. Today Orford Ness, as it is called, is fully ten miles long – a broad spine of shingle confronting the ocean with a soft underbelly of marshes flanking the river.
Nobody lives on the Ness, which barely rises above sea level. No trees grow there. On a hot summer’s day, beneath a vast East Anglian sky, it can be exhilaratingly beautiful with a lazy blue sea to the east and, across the river, the Norman castle and red-tiled roofs of picturesque Orford ringed by lush green countryside. But at other times it appears a bleak and desolate wasteland, pounded by waves, lashed by rain, flayed by icy winds, its desolation compounded by the sinister remains of the top-secret military experiments that the government conducted there throughout much of the 20th century.
Six huge concrete bunkers, their walls protected by steep banks of shingle, stand silhouetted against the sky like strange Chinese pagodas or prehistoric burial mounds. A grey, windowless monolith of a building rests on stilts in the marshes like a stranded battleship. Elsewhere on the stony flats there are crumbling concrete tracks, stunted towers, brick huts in various states of disrepair, the foundations of long-razed buildings, rows of fence-less posts and mysterious fragments of rusting steel. A pair of narrow gauge railway lines vanish beneath the pebbles. Brambles coil and curl like the barbed wire they replaced. A red-and-white lighthouse is less forbidding, but stands perilously close to the eroding shore.
The Ness was on the front line, literally and figuratively, of the three great conflicts that shaped the last century – the two world wars and the cold war. Arguably it contributed as much to Britain’s survival as Bletchley Park, for it was here that the government developed bombs, radar and nuclear weapons.
Today the Ness is run by the National Trust. A place once dedicated to destruction has become a flagship of conservation, a haven for birds and other wildlife. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a National Nature Reserve, a Ramsar-designated wetland site and much else besides. As such it is the scene of a subtler, peculiarly 21st-century conflict of a type that is increasingly common as populations swell and land becomes more precious. It is a struggle between competing demands: the conservation of one of southern Britain’s last significant tracts of wild land on one hand and the preservation of history on the other.
Two men embody those differing priorities. One is Grant Lohoar, a gruff and somewhat reticent former farmer who has managed the Ness for the trust for the past 22 years and is fiercely protective of the place. The other is Nicholas Gold, the enterprising, extrovert and strong-willed son of a Suffolk parson who made his money as a corporate lawyer in London before retiring to Orford to paint.
After a century in which locals have been largely excluded from the land that divides them from the sea, Gold wants them to be able to use and enjoy it again. To the trust’s consternation, he has bought two remarkable buildings on the Ness: the 224-year old lighthouse and that great, grey excrescence in the marshes which is, in fact, an American cold-war-era radar station codenamed Cobra Mist. Those purchases give Gold a substantial say in its future.
Long ago Orford’s menfolk would row across the narrow river to hunt wildfowl on the Ness. They collected oysters from its muddy creeks and gulls’ eggs from its marshes. After those marshes were drained in Henry II’s time they grazed sheep and cattle there. A few engaged in smuggling, even piracy.
Ships were regularly wrecked in the treacherous waters off the coast – 32 in a single stormy night in 1627. A succession of rudimentary wooden lighthouses burned down, or fell into the sea, until the present one was erected in 1792. Bones, shoes, ships’ timbers and metalwork still occasionally wash ashore after storms.
Public access to what locals call “the island” ended when the first world war erupted in 1914. The War Office wanted somewhere flat, empty and far from prying eyes. Orford was 12 miles by winding country lane from Woodbridge, the nearest town of any size, so it commandeered the Ness.
Signs were erected, warning trespassers of prosecution. Huge amounts of material were shipped over from Orford’s quay, along with cheap Chinese labourers and, later, German prisoners -of-war who built sea defences, airstrips and hangars. In those early years the Royal Flying Corps, forerunner of the Royal Air Force, used the Ness to test its first planes, and to develop bomb sights, aerial photography, night flying, parachutes, fireproof fuel tanks and much else besides.
All military work finally ceased in the 1970s, save that of the raf bomb disposal squads charged with recovering thousands of tonnes of unexploded ordnance. The Central Electricity Generating Board briefly considered building a nuclear power station there, but opted for Sizewell just up the coast. Scrap-metal merchants and vandals moved in until the National Trust acquired the Ness in 1993.
The trust has no other property like it. There is no café for tea, no gift shop selling jams and pot-pourri, little shelter. Signs warn of unexploded bombs, and it can be an eerie, uncomfortable place to visit. “It’s almost like all the things that happened here, and all the people who worked here, are still present in some way,” Lohoar says as he gives me a tour of the Ness one blustery morning. “It’s certainly a place that polarises opinions. People love it or hate it. They have very strong opinions about the ethics and morals of what was done here. They have strong opinions about how it should be managed or left alone.”
We visit the six huge bunkers. These, Lohoar explains, are where the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment tested the complex, high-explosive detonators of Britain’s nuclear weapons during the 1950s and 1960s by subjecting them to extreme temperatures, violent shocks and intense vibration. “Officially there was never any fissile material on Orford Ness,” he says, “but you pays your money and takes your choice on that one.”
Lohoar unlocks the padlocked gates and takes me inside. The “labs” are mere shells. Their steel girders are corroding, the concrete is crumbling and the fittings were long ago plundered, leaving empty halls and curious pits. “Anything to do with their function has been robbed, but their real importance is as symbols,” he says. “They represent the cold war and MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). They represent a period in our history where civilisation could have ended itself.”
Elsewhere on the Ness we climb up metal steps to the roof of a building where scientists once measured the ballistic properties of prototype bombs as they fell. Over many decades munitions of every shape and size were tested on the Ness, and craters are still visible in the shingle. Bombs and shells still turn up in the marshes, or wash up on the beach. Even now, Lohoar has to summon bomb disposal experts every few months.
What else happened on the Ness may never be known. Too much is covered by the Official Secrets Act, or was concealed by official disinformation. Those who worked there are mostly dead, will not talk, or operated on a need-to-know basis. “There are key people whose stories we would like to get on tape but they won’t do it,” says Lohoar, who used to stare across at the Ness when he was a young farmer and wonder what was happening. Even relatives who worked there would not tell him.
One recurrent tale is of a wall of burning petroleum, fuelled by underwater pipes, that allegedly killed either a German invasion force or a team of English sappers off the Ness’s southern tip during the second world war and left their bodies strewn across the beach.
It is a fact, however, that a tiny team of scientists led by Robert Watson-Watt raced to develop Radio Direction Finding, now known as radar, on the Ness before the second world war. “Very interesting, young man, but time for lunch now,” the minister for war declared when Watson-Watt showed him a blip miraculously tracking a distant aircraft for the first time. In the event, the boffins’ success gave allied pilots a priceless advantage over their German counterparts in the 1940 Battle of Britain.
Decades later Watson-Watt was caught speeding by a radar gun in Canada and wrote: “Pity poor Sir Watson-Watt/Strange target of his radar plot/And thus with others I could mention/A victim of his own invention.”
The Ness’s military history is fascinating, but Lohoar is keener to show me its natural history. From the top of the so-called Bomb Ballistics Building we enjoy a commanding view of the spit, and he points to diagonal ridges that traverse the shingle as if scored by a giant plough. He explains how each was the crest of an ancient beach formed by storms as the Ness stretched southwards – the littoral equivalent of the rings of a tree. Nothing grows in the furrows, he continues, but over hundreds of years rare lichens and other vegetation have established themselves on the ridge tops where smaller stones offer more protection.
The Ness is not obviously beautiful like the Lake District, he concedes, but it is “absolutely special ecologically”. It is Europe’s finest vegetated shingle spit, one of its rarest habitats, and extraordinarily fragile. If people walk on it, he warns, it will never recover. “It’s irreversible. It will never come back.”
In similar vein, Lohoar extols the wealth of birds on the Ness – the breeding birds and waders, the avocets, marsh harriers, redshanks, lapwings, godwits, golden plovers, ruffs, spoonbills, warblers, stonechats, kestrel, barn and short-eared owls. He explains how easily ground-nesting birds are disturbed by humans in such an open, exposed environment, and how predators steal their eggs if they leave their nests. Stoats, weasels, brown hares, voles and rather too many egg-stealing foxes also flourish on the Ness.
For these and other reasons – safety, the ferry-only access, a desire to preserve the sense of wildness and isolation – the National Trust restricts visitors to 156 a day on a limited number of days per year and not Sundays or bank holidays. It does little to advertise the Ness. No road signs point the way to it. It has scarcely 8,000 visitors a year, fewer than one of the trust’s great country houses would attract on a summer weekend. “We have to allow access, but not so many it becomes a problem,” Lohoar argues.
Broadly speaking, the trust’s policy towards the Ness is one of “controlled ruination” or “managed retreat” – in layman’s terms, letting nature take its course. In the case of the six bunkers, it means allowing them to crumble. Only one is still considered safe enough for the public to approach unsupervised, and restoring them would be prohibitively expensive. With walls up to ten feet thick and roofs weighing 1,500 tonnes or more, demolishing them is not an option either.
That approach protects the trust’s finances as well as the non-human species on the Ness. But it has fuelled tensions between Lohoar and his nemesis, Nick Gold.
In 2011 Trinity House offered the trust the decommissioned lighthouse, which was threatened by the eroding shore. The trust refused, though the 98-foot tower was a Grade II listed building and a Suffolk landmark with spectacular views and a colourful history. The trust argued that erecting sea defences to protect the lighthouse would accelerate erosion elsewhere and, in any case, be futile. As Lohoar put it: “If there’s a fight between us and the North Sea we know who’s going to win.”
Gold took the opposite view. For years he had admired the lighthouse from across the river in Orford. He wanted to save it – and let local people enjoy it – for as long as possible. He duly bought it for £2,000 plus various liabilities, and with it a right of way across trust property from the landing jetty. “Some people prefer a new model Range Rover. I prefer a lighthouse. It’s more interesting than a swanky car in the drive,” he says.
In defiance of the trust, Gold has since sandbagged the shore around the lighthouse’s base to preserve it a little longer, opened it to visitors for virtually the first time in its history, and even held summer concerts there. He makes no money from the building. On the contrary, he says it costs him a lot to maintain. But he describes saving it as one of his three most rewarding achievements – alongside the flotation of Reuters, when he acted for the news agency’s owners, and restoring the finances of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, on whose board he sat for nine years.
He likes to show off the lighthouse, and on New Year’s Day 190 locals walked across the Ness for a glass of mulled wine there. “Everyone loves lighthouses,” he says. “Two or three thousand people have visited it. We just can’t satisfy demand. We could treble that figure easily if we had enough volunteers.”
Last summer Gold bought Cobra Mist, the over-the-horizon radar station built by the US government in 1967 to monitor missile and rocket launches in the Soviet Union. At today’s prices, the cost of construction was more than £1 billion. Some 750,000 tonnes of material were shipped over to the Ness.
Outside its thick steel walls a gigantic fan-shaped spider’s web of towering antennae, covering 135 acres, faced towards Moscow. According to local lore, Russian “trawlers” bristling with aerials moored off the Suffolk coast.
Lohoar claims two Russian “ornithologists” with high-powered binoculars were arrested on top of Orford Castle. But Cobra Mist was shut down within six years. Some say it never worked properly; others that it was superseded by spy satellites or that it was a victim of superpower arms negotiations. Thereafter the BBC World Service used the building to broadcast to eastern Europe until 2011.
Gold will not divulge what he paid Babcock International, a defence contractor, for the building and all its contents, but he also took on what he calls “very significant liabilities” – and another acrimonious dispute with the trust.
In 1998, in accordance with its policy of managed retreat, the trust deliberately omitted to repair the wall protecting the Lantern Marshes at the northern end of the Ness from the river. That may have been ecologically desirable, but in the Great Surge of December 2013, water broke through an inner wall that protected Cobra Mist, flooding the land all around.
Gold took me there one spring morning. We needed a tractor and trailer to get through the flood. Outside, the spooky, windowless cold-war relic was ringed by masts and floodlights protruding from the waters. Inside, it resembled the abandoned set of “Dr Strangelove”.
Gold led me through Cobra Mist’s cavernous halls – mostly now empty except for one that was filled with huge grey transmitters. He showed me an old glass-fronted control centre, rooms within rooms to thwart electronic eavesdropping, inner sanctums with beryllium-coated steel doors and handles on the inside only.
We followed labyrinthine passages to offices with fading maps of Europe on the walls, tool shops, a canteen, a recreation room, a sick bay. We found old filing cabinets and packing cases stuffed with who knows what. We saw internal staircases descending into the murky flood waters below. We had to explore the upper level with torches because it had not been used since 1973 and the electricity was turned off long ago, making it eerier still.
“It’s a folly of grandiose proportions but I like eccentric buildings, I really do,” Gold replied when asked why he bought it. Cobra Mist – like the lighthouse – is a valuable local asset, he explained. He hopes to use it to create local employment. A super-fast broadband operator has already erected a mast on the roof, and Gold hopes a mobile telephone operator will soon follow (Orford still has no mobile signal). He has been approached by production companies interested in using the building as a film set, by a radio station that wants to broadcast to the Netherlands, and by the developers of a huge new offshore wind farm needing a communications hub. He believes Cobra Mist would be ideal as a data centre, and that the surrounding land could be used for a solar farm, because it still has high capacity links to the national grid from its days as Europe’s biggest radar station.
Gold has been a member of the National Trust for 30 years. Like Lohoar, he says he loves the wildness of the Ness – “a beautiful spooky place” – and has no intention of “opening it up to the hordes”. But he does not accept that land that was bombed for half a century can be so delicate: “The fact that it doesn’t appear to be in too bad order speaks for itself.” He does not believe that the Ness’s sea and river defences should be left to deteriorate. He does not agree that its flora and fauna should be prioritised. He contends that “the trust’s ‘keep out’ policy is taken to extremes”, and that local people should enjoy much greater access to – and benefit from – a spit from which they were barred for most of the 20th century.
There have been some heated disputes between Gold and the trust in the past three years: over use of the jetty, alleged harassment by trust employees of visitors to the lighthouse, and over the flooding of Cobra Mist. Gold has not hesitated to use his legal prowess to assert his rights – tabling critical motions at the National Trust’s annual general meeting, unearthing old contracts to show that the trust was obliged to maintain the river defences, and threatening to sue if it did not reverse the flooding of his property.
A fragile ceasefire has now taken hold. The two parties recently settled their dispute over the flooding on terms which – like so much else on the Ness – remain secret. Both Gold and Lohoar talk of the need to co-operate. But given their different goals it will not be easy. Any relationship is likely to resemble that of the sea and the Ness itself: a low-level war of attrition, an endless cycle of advances and retreats that constantly reshapes this curious strip of land.