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Orford Ness is a cuspate foreland shingle spit on the Suffolk coast in Great Britainmarker, linked to the mainland at Aldeburghmarker and stretching along the coast to Orfordmarker and down to North Wier Point, opposite Shingle Streetmarker. It is divided from the mainland by the River Aldemarker, and was formed by longshore drift along the coast. The material of the spit comes from places further north, such as Dunwichmarker. Near the middle point of its length, at the foreland point or 'Ness', lies the Orfordness lighthouse. Note that, in the name of the lighthouse, ‘Orfordness’ is written as one word.

Orford Ness is an internationally important site for nature conservation. It contains a significant portion of the European reserve of vegetated shingle habitat, which is internationally scarce, highly fragile and very easily damaged. Together with Havergate Island the site is a designated National Nature Reserve and forms part of: the Alde-Ore Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); the Alde, Ore & Butley Estuaries and the Orfordness-Shingle Street Special Area of Conservation (SAC); the Alde-Ore Estuary Special Protection Area (SPA); the Alde-Ore Estuary Ramsar Site site; the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB); and the Suffolk Heritage Coast. It is also listed as of national importance in the Geological Conservation Review(GCR), as a grade 1 site in the Nature Conservation Review. (NCR) and qualifies for the DEFRA Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme.


The peninsula was formerly administered by the Ministry of Defence, which conducted secret military tests during both world wars and the Cold War. The Atomic Weapons Research Establishmentmarker had a base on the site, using the site for 'environmental testing' of the trigger and other mechanisms of nuclear weapons. Many of the buildings from this time remain clearly visible from the quay at Orford, including the distinctive-looking 'pagodas'. Whilst it is maintained that no fissile material was tested on the site, the very high explosive initiator charge was present and the buildings were designed to absorb any accidental explosion, allowing gases and other material to vent and dissipate in a directed or contained manner.

The Orfordness transmitting stationmarker is located on the peninsula and it broadcasts BBC World Service across the North Seamarker to western Europe and Radio Nationaal to Holland. The site and building were previously used by an experimental military over-the-horizon radar known as Cobra Mist.

In the 1930's Orford Ness was the site of the first purpose built experiments on the defence system that would later be known as radar. Having proved the technology on Orford Ness Robert Watson-Watt and his team moved to nearby Bawdseymarker Manor and developed the Chain Home radar system in time for its vital role in the Battle of Britain.

Orford Ness is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public under the name "Orford Ness National Nature Reserve", though access is strictly controlled to protect the fragile habitats and due to a residual danger to the public from the site's former use by the military - access is only available by the National Trust ferry from Orford Quay on designated open days (see [107962]).

Rachel Woodward writes:

The 'pagodas' at Orford Ness.

Owing to its military history, its stark appearance and the fact that it was closed to the public for many decades, several apocryphal stories have circulated about Orford Ness. The best-known is the suggestion that Nazi troops attempted to invade Englandmarker and actually disembarked at the tip of the peninsula near Shingle Streetmarker, before being repelled with a wall of fire. Official sources denied any such attempted invasion took place, an assertion apparently confirmed by classified documents released in 1993. More recently, the flashes of the lighthouse were implicated in the Rendlesham Forest UFO sightings of late December 1980.


Map showing Orford Ness and historical extent.

Orford Ness is Europe's largest vegetated shingle spit. It is approximately 15 km long, and the site covers a total area of approximately 901 hectares (9km²). Forty percent of this (360ha) is shingle, 25 percent (225ha) tidal rivers, mud flats, sand flats, and lagoons, eighteen percent (162ha) grassland, and fifteen percent (135ha) salt marsh.

The spit formed almost entirely of flint deposited by waves through the process of long-shore drift. The main influence on its formation has been storm waves throwing shingle over the top of the beach crest, where it is protected from ordinary wave action. Over time, this process leads to the formation of stable ridges of fine particles, and swails of coarser shingle.

The size and shape of the spit fluctuates over time (see map). Estimated growth rates range from 64m per year in 1962 to 1967, to 183m per year in 1804 to 1812. Between 1812 and 1821, the total length fluctuated by 2.9km. As a result of the dynamically changing nature of the spit, the true age of its formation is unknown. However, before about 1200, Orford is thought to have been a port facing the open sea.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Note: Woodward states that the testing grounds closed in the early 1990s.
  2. The name 'ness' means 'promontory'. See
  3. Annex 06: Orfordness in:

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