Orford Ness is an extraordinary place. A strange peninsula, reachable only by boat and very much like an island in feel, it was formed by the combined effects of silt from the river and sand and stones washed in by the tide. It’s a unique habitat of vegetated shingle, and is not really solid land at all – the whole shape slowly waves and twists over decades and centuries under the pressures of the tides. Right next to Aldeburgh, Britten’s town on the Suffolk coast, it lies directly in front of Orford Harbour, which was busy and important port until the Ness grew for miles across it, blocking off access from the sea by all but the smallest boats.
It offers a strange and memorable combination of rare, delicate wildlife and flora alongside dilapodated and sinister buildings left by the Ministry of Defence, who used the site for experiments on weaponry (including H-bomb detonators) from the 1920s to the 80s. It’s been memorably described by W.G Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, and also by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book The Wild Places.
But why I am talking about it here? The ness has been the site of numerous lighthouses over the centuries, the last and most impressive of which was built in the 1780s. It’s a strong and sturdy structure – but the coastline in front of it has been eroding very fast in recent years. It won’t be long at all before the base of the lighthouse will be literally standing in the North sea, and once that starts decay and dereliction will quickly follow. This is why a couple of years ago the decision was taken to decommission the lighthouse and allow it to be gradually reclaimed by the elements.
It seems to me that this is a historic moment.
It’s obviously a big change for the people of Orford Ness, who no longer see the beam scanning over the waves, and know that the sea is drawing ever closer. But to me it also feels like the turning of the tide in a much bigger story. Orford lighthouse dates from the Enlightenment, when a combination of rationality and idealism gave people the confidence and the means to begin to shape the world in the way they wanted to. The lighthouse warning ships away from a treacherous coast is just one small example of how men set about subjugating nature, sometimes with laudable intentions, sometimes in thoughtless greed. Everyone knows now that that story has got us into a perilous position, and that the environment’s power over us and our futures has turned out to be far greater than our power over it. And now, without in any way abandoning our efforts to use science and technology to make the world a safer place to live in, we’re having to show a much greater humility. Our engineering capabilities may be a hundred times greater than they were in the 1780s, but the fact is that where they chose to intervene and to build, we today are forced to withdraw and abandon.
So I was hugely excited when I heard of plans to mark this turning-point with a series of arts events to celebrate the story of Orford, its people and its history, and to think over the significance of the present moment and contemplate the future. Thanks to novelist Liz Ferretti, who has been a prime mover in all this, I’m now writing a new piece inspired by this unique place and by the lighthouse’s past and future. It’s an exciting project: there could be no more contemporary issue than this.
Photos gratefully acknowledged: EADT; Orford Ness National Nature Reserve; Matthew Guilliatt.