One cold wet February day a group of students arrived for a tour of Orford Ness. Several weeks later they were invited to write exactly 100 words reflecting on that visit – a memory-mapping group derive. The result is 1,000 words by the following ten contributors (listed alphabetically by first name): Alvin Rindlisbacher, Barbara Claridge, Ben Thomas, Claire Pearson, Elelia Ferro, Judith Wolton, Liam Xavier, Molly Shrimpton, Ruth Bradshaw, Wendy Constance. Photos by Barbara Claridge and Wendy Constance.
Cloud sat down on the Ness that day. The ferryman took us across the Styx to an island scarred by planned aggression. Dead weaponry lies around rusting, degrading, still hiding seeds of destruction. Bomb-test labs collapse – an atom bomb nests like a white egg. This is a restless island, shaped by the sea which mouths its edges, sucks and spits its stones, rolls them down the coast.
There is an eerie beauty too – lichen shawls the swales, geese call on the marshes, hares run free of fear. The stones camouflage plovers’ eggs. New life breeds beside memories of death
Moonscape under sodden sky
In cold bunker rooms
Twisted oxidised metal.
Am I the only one to see the broken jackdaw
Fallen from the electricity box
Desiccated body kicked upon the concrete floor?
Reels of razor wire imprison
intricate sage grey creeping lichen
in case it invades the ruins.
we know who will win that war.
A child’s play table juxtaposed with the bomb.
in a Blue Danube that won’t waltz,
Chinese water deer in Orford hare-land.
No one asked the stones for their story.
And we never saw the sea.
Rain smudged, weirded buildings emerge from the fog, squat, rotting; monstrous monuments to the equipage of conflict. Sentinels of concealment in managed decline. Constance Robson, her faded gaze reaches from 1919 through the chill damp glass. A woman working among men on this barren shingle spit while prisoners laboured and aviation took flight. Here they strove to command wild, deadly forces. Weapons were birthed, technologies perfected for freedom; but now, among the shingle, wind gusted birds forage where horned poppy thrives. Fear fades into rust as Chinese water deer stray. Nature dissolves the memories of war to a fragile peace.
A bomb intact
a son unborn
summer on the castle
broken bones and
shiver cries and
a wire of softness –
this boat glides
Let me leave the Ness behind
by the castle
instead of sheep
rusted cables –
splashed with fungus
out to places
never spoken –
‘Managed degradation’ – a term describing this desolate island abandoned to corrosion and decay – crumbling buildings scarred by what happened here – bomb-blasted walls blurred by drizzle and mist – a sombre saturation of greyness – the backcloth to landscape ravaged by mankind and his pioneering experiments for atomic weapons.
A host of greylag geese straggle along the murky marsh – hares dash warily – Chinese water deer dart over the horizon. Silvery blue-green leaves of yellow horned-poppy; bright green moss; yellow lichen; white flash of a little egret – glimmering gems which shine through the gloom.
Mother Nature – undefeated – returns and revives
Like a portal into the otherworld, mist laid over fields, creeped between trees, created an eerie atmosphere, mystical yet ominous. The journey left a ghostly impression as we took in Gothic horror made real. Like the narrator’s description on his journey to the Usher Estate, written by Edgar Allan Poe in The Fall of the House of Usher, Orford Ness felt desolate, unreal, but captivating and serene. Life and death juxtaposed as ruins with metallic skeletons told of the past, animals and alien looking plants took over what has been forsaken by humans, its nature so real and yet melancholic.
A soft mist covers the outskirts
Of a nigh on deserted spit,
Life, just visible,
And I am reminded
That this place,
Stillness and degradation,
Even the rain feels different here,
Like even it is afraid to land.
Like it would rather hang in the air,
Just floating in uncertainty,
Not able to return,
But too scared to fall.
As time passes,
I can’t tell,
I see its beauty.
In its quietude,
In its tamed temper
In its bleakness.
I feel so far from civilization,
And that, oddly, perhaps sadly,
Comforts me somewhat.
I remember Orford Ness as a strange land of shingle and secrets, of Cobra Mist, salt-tinged wind and endless, cold rain. A small museum with fading pictures of the farmers and fishers who made a living on this almost-island long before testing out new ways of killing became the business here. Now the military are gone and nature restates its claim. There is moss on the walls of crumbling concrete buildings, a bird’s nest in a rusting cabinet in an abandoned weapons lab, unfamiliar plants on the shifting stones beneath our feet and wildfowl in the watery marshes we pass
The desert shingle glints like gunmetal; a bleakness of silver, grey and brown, it reverberates with the frequency of flint. A round of curlews sputters forth from the reeds like gun shots. Further on, a war of words rages still: block capitals in red and black, bequeathing the presence of things best forgotten. Pagodas squat and shimmer on the horizon, their secrets sealed in with a grave of concrete and shingle. Whilst longshore drift dropped pebble after pebble, man dropped only bomb after bomb. The spit split first, and later the atom. The Ness: a sacred site of elemental despair.
What can be said about Orford Ness in only 100 words? A place that was full of mystery, confusion and secrets. A place that felt like a wild post-apocalyptic setting. A place that probably changed all of us when we visited that day.
Heavy rain invited us on to this barren shingle spit on the coast of Suffolk. Once the place of bomb testing and military radars, it had now become the home of oversized hares and information centres. Once we left, more than 100 words could be said about our trip, but one stood out more than any: transposed