The largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe is on the Suffolk coast. In 1913 the Royal Flying Corp established an aerodrome for the Central Flying Schools' Experimental Flying Section. It tested aerial photography, bomb and gun sights and evaluated aircraft. In 1924 the Aeroplane and Armaments Experimental Establishment moved in and Orford Ness was used as a firing and bombing range. Robert WatsonWatt's team began work here on radio echo detection in 1935-36.
During the Second World War concrete and anti-glider defences covered the Ness.
The site continued as a centre for bomb trials through the 1940s and 1950s. Then in 1956 the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment began constructing the first of six atomic weapons test cells along its eastern seafront. These laboratories were used for testing the conventional and explosive part of the British atomic bomb and so were designed to withstand catastrophic explosions. The labs are huge concrete structures.
In late 1969 work began on over-the-horizon radar in a worldwide Anglo-American system called Cobra Mist, which continued until 1973 (it ended because of a mysterious lowfrequency 'noise' problem of an undetermined nature). BBC World Service digital and analogue transmissions continue in the former Cobra Mist building.
The site has been occupied by German prisoners of war, the Chinese Labour Corps and Cambridge boffins; it is a place of 20th-century military history on a site of European nature conservation, important for both shingle vegetation and the shingle landform. This is one of the most dynamic landforms on the British coastline, constantly moving and reforming in ridgelines and swales.
In 1993 the National Trust took over from the Ministry of Defence (military occupation ended in 1988) and the trust began managing the site for both nature conservation, particularly restoring the shingle habitat, and a programme of managed dereliction, with some conservation of the military structures.
As with the German Atlantic Wall, the interest is one of concrete used for functional military engineering, often resulting in structures designed for a limited life or to allow destruction.
The atmosphere is very clean and allows plant growth, particularly lichens, and landform movement. So what was a military testing ground has become a place of plant habitat creation and of testing the rigidity of concrete construction. It would appear as if washed shingle was used as aggregate in some foundation structures so the landform became the buildings which, in turn, are now recycling.
The atomic testing lab includes two massive structures, known as Pagodas, with overhanging concrete roofs covered with 3m-high mounds of shingle, supported by two rows of concrete pillars and deep pits underground within which the atomic triggers were lowered by a 10 tonne crane. These are now viewed under wide skies across the expansive shingle landscape like a Neolithic site, memorials to Cold War military science.
One walks past the concrete bases of former barracks buildings from which poppies and grasses grow through expansion joints and out of post-holes. The concrete is often remarkably carefully finished, particularly the pre-Second World War work, such as the board-marked mass concrete end walls of the flood defences (known as the Chinese wall, built by Chinese labour in the First World War). The concrete structures and roads have shifted as if they were nature's toys. Lines and rectangles of concrete mark former barracks, while circular foundations mark gun mounts.
Orford Ness is a place of transition and memory, in which massive concrete engineering is tested by the landscape and the sea.