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Trip to Orford Ness

Orford Ness is a strange place, even when you visit it on a bright sunny June day, like I did in 2021. It has the veneer of respectability – owned by National Trust, now a renowned Nature reserve – but as you venture further into it, secret histories start to resurface – histories obscured and hidden from the public eye. Even accessing the Ness is a mythical experience – carried over the River Ore by the ferryman and his sea-dog black lab. Once back on land, strange shapes appear on the horizon: shells of abandoned experiments, the Black Beacon (which bears some resemblance to Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage at Dungeness, another remote shingle headland), and those famous pagoda-shaped structures (designed so that the columns would blow out and seal bomb blasts in the shingle below). Despite no longer being used as a military test site, its history is still shockingly present in the form of signs along the red shingle path that read: “DANGER UNEXPLODED ORDNANCE”. How many National Trust properties can you think of that also have these signs? In the years since the Trust bought the site in 1993, wildlife has reclaimed the space as its own; the flash of pink sea thrift amidst the rust, gulls that mock the stately pagodas by nesting on their roofs, a windblown, gnarled tree, perfectly framing the end of the path like a prop from the set of Waiting for Godot. How quickly this site of barrenness, paranoia, and isolation has been reclaimed by internationally significant ecosystems! It made me think of our collective experiences of nature during lockdown: had we ever heard birds sing so loud, so clear? Warming myself on the sun-soaked pebbles after a quick dip, I noticed a pile of reddish rubble to my right – the remains of the iconic red and white lighthouse, demolished in 2020 due to coastal erosion. Hearing the grating roar of the pebbles, the waves beginning, ceasing, and beginning again, I understood Orford Ness to be a landscape of change, constantly shifting, refusing to stay put. Perhaps that is the fate of this whole island – to be slowly engulfed by the relentless sea like an inverted Atlantis, leaving future generations wondering: “was it ever even here?”

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