Oford Ness is a remote, bleak shingle spit on the east coast of England north of the mouth of the River Deben and the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe. It is 16 km long from north to south, and is reckoned the best preserved vegetated shingle ridge in Europe. After eight decades of military use the site was sold by the British government in 1993 to the National Trust, which now manages the visitor facilities. The main emphasis of interpretation is on the birds, plants and insects found on the spit but guided tours include the archaeological remains of military activity, some of which can only be accessed by members of organised groups. The only access to the spit is by ferry from Orford Quay in the village of Orford, 20 km by road from the Suffolk town of Woodbridge which operates only on days when Orford Ness is advertised as open. The shortest of the guided walks extends for 8 km.
Orford Ness is one of the most significant sites in the British Isles illustrating the relationship between war and industry. Is remoteness made it an ideal location for experimental work that would have been dangerous in populated areas. The first military use came in 1915 when the Royal Flying Corps constructed a flying field that was used to carry out research into bombs, aerial machine guns, navigation and aerial photography. The RFC became the Royal Air Force in 1918, and continued to use the area for testing bombs. From 1935 to 1937 it was used by a team of scientists carrying out practical experiments on radar, carrying further the work of Henry Tizard (1885-1959) and Robert Watson Watt (1892-1973), mostly in existing RAF buildings. The experiments were important but the research was moved elsewhere. During the Second World War the Aeronautical Armament Experimental Establishment was based on Orford Ness, carrying out research into the vulnerability of aircraft to hostile fire. A remaining aircraft wing appears to have been used to study the effects of gunfire on self-sealing fuel tanks. Towards the end of the war anti-aircraft gun batteries were built to combat the threat of German V1 flying bombs. An Atomic Weapons Research Establishment which was based at Orford Ness from 1955 until 1971. It carried out experiments on the non-nuclear parts of the atomic and hydrogen bombs designed to be carried by the RAF’s fleet of V-bombers during the Cold War. A small radar station was constructed to guide aircraft making trial drops. Vibration testing of weapons was carried out in ‘pagoda’ buildings constructed about 1960 which are the most substantial remaining military structures. Some experiments were carried out with over-the-horizon radar systems, but the location was found to be unsuitable. Many buildings and other structures were demolished after the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment was closed in 1971, but Orford Ness remains one of the best places in which to study the scientific aspects of 20th century warfare.