By Elizabeth Lee Reynolds
Nestled along the Suffolk coast lies the shingle spit of Orford Ness. A piece of land utterly detached from the lives of the typical rural town of Orford, it has long been called ‘The Island’ even though its northern most edge still clings perilously to the corner of nearby Aldeburgh.
It is a grey and blustery day as I stand on the quay, a stretch of concrete much larger than the handful of boats stranded on the beach by the ebb of the tide would suggest is necessary for such a small town. The Ness appears as a strip of green across the water, with mounds dotted over it like giant molehills disrupting the land.
From here it can only be reached by boat, though the ride is only a matter of minutes. When your feet are replanted you might forget that right behind you are the pleasant brickwork buildings you were only just wandering through. It is another world, where the sun has been replaced by the white dome of the Sizewell nuclear plant floating on the horizon.
The landscape feels disjointed from the separate parts of itself, just as it is from that now distant town. One half is covered in salt-crusted, brittle marshland, where the few trees bend in submission to the unrelenting wind. The other is a shingle desert naturally combed like a Japanese stone garden, but in the place of water features and aesthetically placed rocks are slowly decaying buildings.
The decay covers all parts of this stretch of land. Gradually the sea bites away at the coastline, edging farther up the shingle shore. As precarious climate conditions get worse, this process will only be accelerated, finally completely detaching the Ness from the rest of the coastline. The lighthouse, with its bright red stripes offering a few flashes of colour, is certainly doomed. A sense of destruction looms over the future of the island; but also haunts its past and present.
In a place that seems so distant, I am surprised but reassured by any reminder of the rest of humanity’s continued existence. I have crossed the width of the island and stand facing the sea. The waves seem as grey and desolate as the land around me but something along the strand catches my eye. Approaching, I find a makeshift shrine, constructed of two cinder blocks with a tattered bit of panelling placed on top. Clustered on its surface are decorative rocks, shells and the odd bit of metal casing. Each object has been chosen, consciously or not, as a representative of its kind.
One rock in particular stands out. It is a rough pinkish red, with curving lines of white running through it. One side is a sharp flat surface, not eroded like the soft curves on its other edges, but suddenly and viciously cloven in two. Inside, the lines run straighter, like the veins of a living being. I want to pocket it as my own personal memory, but reconsider. For here is part of a history that can live in this place alone. I replace the rock on its pulpit and look towards the so-called pagodas, two of the seven laboratories built on the site, standing in the distance.
This collection of labs, where various tests on nuclear weapons were once conducted bear an uncanny resemblance to ancient tombs. A few, from a distance, appear as simple hills, echoing the burial mounds of the East Angles. The most identifiable are the pagodas, though they more closely resemble Ancient Greek temples, only with white marble replaced with cold concrete. But links between these two worlds go deeper than aesthetics. The same hollow echo resonates throughout the structures, a sense of past glory and decay. Although built for very different purposes there is the same feeling that you are being let into something sacred, something that went beyond simple human comprehension. You feel it as the hair across your skin prickles under some invisible, eternal potency.
Encased within the walls of Ancient Greek temples and Cold War laboratories were acts of transgression towards the basis of the present understanding of reality. Just as the Greeks built statues to control and appease their deities, scientists were meddling with the basic units of existence in order to unleash their deadly power. In these acts they sensed themselves edging closer to their perceived Gods. Both are pronounced heroes of war, but while Ancient Greek figures were immortalised in literature and art, every contour of their body carved into rough stone to stand victorious forever, all that remains in memory of the Orford Ness achievements are crumbling concrete ruins.
Wandering towards those haunted features feels like being lost in a post-apocalyptic landscape; you may even forget that it could ever have been inhabited. Yet here, in a piece of earth left to ruination, is all the tokens of our human civilisations. Just as the Ancient Greek hero epitomised his society’s values, Orford Ness is a microcosm of human development.
There is the sea where we were born. The sacred inhabits the aesthetics of the constructions. There are sheep brought over for agriculture and almost every activity that took place here is symbolic of our ever continuing advancement. History rests in every stone, and like much of human history it is all deeply embedded in war. From the Napoleonic Martello tower on the corner of Aldeburgh to the concrete pagodas on the horizon, every structure has foundations in military interests, most now draped in legends and local folklore, but tangible relics still remain.
In a small, unimposing hut lays the climax. Pure white walls surround the once active missile. If it was held up lengthwise it would probably be slightly shorter than me. Inside the room is dead silence, outside the strong wind occasionally batters at the flimsy windows. Despite the bomb being disarmed I still feel wary of it. At first I can’t bring myself to approach it. I stand on the other side of the room sizing it up, failing to visualise the immense power it once held. The silence is broken as the warden who let me in gently hurries me. I am spurred on to approach it, but nothing could bring me to touch the shining metal.
On the white casing is inscribed a series of letters and serial numbers that mean nothing to me; the warden later tells me one of the sequences was to denote the colour. Above that are some direct instructions to the user: WARNING LOWER ROLLERS BEFORE CLAMPING SADDLE / TIGHTEN NUTS TO 15 LB. FT. USING TORQUE WRENCH. I can make little more of these instructions than I could the serial numbers. All I can relate to in those cold words is the image of the finale of Dr. Strangelove, as our cowboy turned soldier saddles the bomb like a rodeo bull on its unstoppable path, thrusting and cheering in total exuberance before he is consumed by the blinding light of detonation.
Historical memories of a country I’ve never been to, the bomb’s only victims, flood into my mind as the light consumes the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
Children’s screams, burning flesh, the utter inhumane vengeance of war. Families broken, cities decimated.
Fire. Terror. Pain. Loss. 70 years later have the wounds even been allowed to heal?
I need to return to the present, but the confusion still persists in the landscape surrounding me. It is at once the decaying ruins of a military base and a thriving natural reserve. Will I come across the remains of a bomb or a hare exploding out of the sparse shrubbery? It is both in the past and the present, with solar panels stood on a backdrop of disused power lines. But a landscape does not come into conflict because of the fluidity of its existence. It accepts each changing aspect and incorporates them into what it is. This is how they become malleable to us, because of their assembled state we can choose to read a landscape as it is significant to us.
But still it would seem impossible for anyone to truly connect to Orford Ness. The land itself is so disorientating it is hard enough to place yourself within it. The open stretches make the dotted buildings seem farther away than they are, but the white dome of Sizewell nuclear plant looms on the horizon as if it was closer than the pagodas. Your position is screwed on all axis, as seawalls enclose around you can’t recall your relation to the river or the rest of the land surrounding you.
This landscape leaves a firm mark on you. It cannot be engaged with by simply walking through. Experiencing Orford Ness is encountering the hidden past of humanity; memories are lapping on the shore. So imbued with a multitude of memory, it is almost a living being. In its stones and ruins the associations we construct are pliable to our own interests. It does not exist in only one time and space. All of history is contained within a tiny spit of land off the coast of rural Suffolk.
When W. G. Sebald walked this beach as part of his wanderings through Suffolk it was the suppression of memory that most dominated his comments and thoughts. It was a deathly landscape, as it still is, but memory cannot be continually stifled. Eventually it bursts violently forth, and the waves of history wash over the shingle shore.
Elizabeth Lee Reynolds is an environmental writer who has lived in London, Brussels and the North-west of England but is now settled in the East Anglian countryside. She recently received a Master’s degree from Essex University in the unique course Wild Writing: Literature and the Environment. She is a writer at Writing Times and has been published in various places, primarily on topics concerning the natural world and literature, including a piece in the upcoming book The Migrant Waders published by Dunlin Press. She blogs at eeleereynolds.wordpress.com.