Orford Ness Military Base / AWRE and Orfordness Transmitting Station May 2020

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J_a_t_33

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This was quite the extraordinary place to explore. A whole day is required to get round this place!

The base is located on an isolated spit of land on the Suffolk coast, so narrow that in places you can cast a stone from one side to the other, seems an unlikely place to find the remnants of nearly a century of advanced scientific military research.

Orford Ness has been in military use ever since 1913. For the greater part of the 20th century it was one of the most secret experimental military sites in the country and was used for a vast range of things, from testing the integrity of aircraft by relentlessly shooting at them and searching for vulnerabilities, to testing bombs, early radar systems technology and even testing atomic weapons and their components...


The first part we encountered on our explore was the Orfordness transmitting station.
Building started mid-1967 and completed 10th July 1971. This experimental Anglo-American military over-the-horizon scatter radar known as Cobra Mist was built on the peninsula with the intention of detecting craft over the horizon. Through the early part of 1972 testing found a considerable amount of unexpected noise, which appeared as frequency shifting of the signal. A lengthy series of investigations into the source of the noise followed and, in desperation, the USAF eventually turned over the testing to a panel headed by SRI. The new team continued testing from January to May 1973, but no convincing explanation was ever found. The USAF simply gave up and on 30 June 1973 the system was shut down, never having been used operationally. It is estimated to have cost between $100 and $150 million and was the largest radar facility in the world.

Orfordness transmitting station became the new home of BBC medium wave transmissions to the continent in 1978 after the November wavelength changes. With increasing reliance on other delivery methods for their overseas programmes, the BBC took the decision in 2010 to cease all UK-based medium wave transmissions for the external services, and the transmitters fell silent in March 2011. However, later that year 648 kHz returned to service for several months following the catastrophic collapse of a major transmitting mast in Holland, providing a replacement medium wave service for the lost Dutch FM transmissions.

In November 2017 Radio Caroline started using the reserve 648 kHz mast, which I believe is still in use.

As we approached, we were greeted by the huge antenna masts and this rather unattractive building:

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Water channel around the site makes it feel like it's protected by moat as well as the fences:
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Could do with a good jet wash
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The six 1296 kHz masts (beam bearing 96°) used for years to carry BBC Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Slovene, Slovak and German vernacular transmissions.
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The masts visible at the site today date from the BBC's later use of the site as a radio transmitting station for the Foreign Office and the BBC World Service.
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Another layer of fence protection as you get close
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Getting good signal on Sky Sports was never an issue
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My dog Ananda has decided it's time to move onto the military stuff!
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Looking back at the transmitting station before heading over the bridge to the military area
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Quite a bit of wildlife here.
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Before getting to the exciting stuff, we were greeted by some pretty standard buildings and offices
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Designated dying area
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Time to head over to the interesting stuff!

The Bomb Ballistics Building, looking seawards.
The Bomb Ballistics Building was built in 1933 as the centrepiece for a new bombing range – the rapidly increasing performance and carrying capacity of aircraft making bombing now more a science than an art.

Housing what was at the time state-of-the-art camera equipment, scientists in the blockhouse would record the flight of bombs dropped out to sea and analyse the results with a view to making design improvements.
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Atomic Weapons Research Establishment
1953, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) moved in and appears to have had exclusive control of the site from 1959.

Orford Ness is one of the few places known where purpose built facilities were created for testing atomic weapons and their components. Blue Danube, Britain’s first atomic bomb, was lowered by crane into a specially-constructed pit to be tested. Tests were designed to imitate the extreme conditions such weapons would be subjected to prior to detonation – vibration, high temperatures, shocks, G-forces.

The outside of the AWRE Lab 1. Note the shingle piled up to contain explosions
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Looking inside
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Roof has seen better days!
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Large pieces of rusty metal scattered about
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We had a right blast exploring in here...
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This place is off the rails...
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Although officially no nuclear material was involved, a test failure of the initiator could have resulted in a major explosion. This is why the huge test labs were designed with pillar-supported concrete roofs and shingle revetments – to absorb and contain an accidental explosion.
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Pagodas
Perhaps the most distinctive buildings from this period are the two "pagoda" test labs – or AWRE Vibration Test Buildings – at the far end of the site. Their unique construction was designed to withstand the accidental detonation of 400lbs (181.4kg) of high explosives.

The buildings were designed as compression tanks – in the event of an accident concerning high explosives, the roofs would collapse, enclosing the building as with a great concrete tomb.
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Looking over at the lighthouse
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Looking down inside the pagoda
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This building is near the pagodas
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Floor tiles still like new
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This building had these odd large white tiles with holes in on the walls. Any ideas what these were??
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Thanks for looking :) Last part of the explore coming in another post.

Sources:
What really happened at Orford Ness? - A Bit About Britain
 
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J_a_t_33

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Just outside the above building are these underground shelters... Ananda reckons we should taker a look inside
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Looking down inside
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As we begin our long walk back, we take a look back at the AWRE buildings and head towards a few smaller but interesting looking buildings
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Power House
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Models of the military base can be found collecting dust inside a visitor building
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Then finally... Over to the lighthouse and little house
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Lighthouse

The waters off Orford beach can be treacherous, shelving deeply, with dangerous currents just a few feet off shore and shifting shingle and sandbanks ready to entrap unlucky sailors. During one great storm in 1627, thirty-two ships were wrecked off Orford Ness. Light houses were installed, but they too were lost to the hungry sea.

The present Orford Ness Lighthouse was built privately in 1792 by Lord Braybroke, and was taken over by Trinity House, Britain’s lighthouse authority, in 1837. It was in service until quite recently, but decommissioned in 2013 due to erosion of the beach and will one day join its predecessors at the bottom of the North Sea.

Just about hanging in there...
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Behind the lighthouse we found another explorer. This beautiful little being hanging out on the beach
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And last 2 shots as we looked back at the transmitting station while the sun began to set
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Thanks for looking :)
 

gtwibell

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Nice explore and photos. When I went, a few years ago now, I was told the squat building with the wall tiles was the site fire station. The circular structure within a building housed a centrifuge which I think got moved to Aldermaston. There was also a short length of rocket sled track used for high speed impact testing.

Interesting factoid on the BBC transmitter site. It was used to transmit the BBC's experimental digital radio service on medium wave known as Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) which gives FM sound quality on MF and HF bands.
 

BikinGlynn

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That is bloody lovely, I know the beaches are protected here but often wondered if it was explorable.
I trust u didnt encounter anyone there then?
 

J_a_t_33

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@gtwibell - Thanks for your comment and contributions! Fire station makes sense. Still intrigued by those tiles.

@BikinGlynn - Thank you mate! Nah, no other people were encountered on the explore at all, just sheep, deer and our seal friend lol.
 

Dirus_Strictus

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Your hole filled white tiles are bog standard sound absorbing wall lining. Cuts down all chances of echoes and unwanted noise buggering up critical data collecting. In this instance if the room in question was the the fire crew rest room, then the insulation makes sense. However the concrete floor full of cable trenches points to this being an equipment room and not crew quarters.
 
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Lady Anne

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Thank you Jat 33. The BBC presence at Orfordness used to be under the management of the BBC at Tacolneston Transmitter. There used to be a small permanent team working at BBC Orfordness during the time I worked for the BBC at Tacolneston from 1986 - 1993. I visited the site many times and it was wonderful to take the ferry across to the island and then drive across to the BBC team housed in an enormous building. There was a canteen with a wonderful view and I remember having a good Christmas dinner there. It is a shame that the ferry isn't open at the moment as I would love to go back and see how it is now under the National Trust.
 

Mikeymutt

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Beautiful mate. It's been on my list to do forever and you have encouraged me even more to do it.
 

J_a_t_33

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@Lady Anne thank you very much for your input, absolutely love hearing from people who had experience somewhere back when it was functional.
Fyi, it's not actually an island and is accessible without the ferry ;)

@HughieD Wow, what a compliment. Thank you so much mate!

@Mikeymutt Thanks man! Hope you get down there, it's well worth a trip!
 

Lady Anne

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@Lady Anne thank you very much for your input, absolutely love hearing from people who had experience somewhere back when it was functional.
Fyi, it's not actually an island and is accessible without the ferry ;)

@HughieD Wow, what a compliment. Thank you so much mate!

@Mikeymutt Thanks man! Hope you get down there, it's well worth a trip!
Thanks Jat 33, had forgotten that and will take a trip down there.
 

JayGeeBSE

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The whole site is now run by the National Trust. They have an office on the quay at Orford and they'll book you onto their ferry. It's a very long walk (on shingle!) from the Aldeburgh end, and there are signs saying you must keep to the marked paths as there is unexploded ammo about.

Since the photographs here the lighthouse has been demolished and the best bits supposedly saved.

When I visited in 2019 the bomb drop camera building was open, with a guide. Also a guide in another building which had photos and diagrams and a cartoon. Even the sheep are organised by the National Trust.

The extreme southern end of the peninsula was an airfield in WW1 but I've never heard of anyone visiting there - probably absolutely nothing to see of a tented camp and grass airfield.
 

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Lady Anne

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The whole site is now run by the National Trust. They have an office on the quay at Orford and they'll book you onto their ferry. It's a very long walk (on shingle!) from the Aldeburgh end, and there are signs saying you must keep to the marked paths as there is unexploded ammo about.

Since the photographs here the lighthouse has been demolished and the best bits supposedly saved.

When I visited in 2019 the bomb drop camera building was open, with a guide. Also a guide in another building which had photos and diagrams and a cartoon. Even the sheep are organised by the National Trust.

The extreme southern end of the peninsula was an airfield in WW1 but I've never heard of anyone visiting there - probably absolutely nothing to see of a tented camp and grass airfield.
It's a shame about the lighthouse. I remember going up to the top and the view was spectacular.

When I tried to book the ferry with the National Trust last year it was not running because of the virus restrictions. I will do the walk instead.

I hope the National Trust do not organise too much and leave it in its wild state.
 

Roderick

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That was an epic report, must have taken nearly as long to compile as the original explore.
Just Great!
 

wolfism

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Beautiful mate. It's been on my list to do forever and you have encouraged me even more to do it.
Snap, always been intrigued by the pagodas. I fancied doing the National Trust tour some time but have heard that you're somewhat restricted in where you can actually go once on site.

In terms of the white wall tiles, those look like mineral fibre tegular ceiling tiles that somebody's mounted on a wall to absorb sound. By spacing them off the wall you create a void behind the tile so that any sound passing through a hole is absorbed by its back face. Suspect that space was used as a generator or compressor room.
 

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