Orford is a small town on the Suffolk coast. It is bordered by the River Alde which separates it from Orford Ness – Havergate Nature Reserve, beyond which lies the North Sea.
Archaeological finds in Orford date back to Roman activity and even as far back as the Iron Age. Anglo-Saxon finds have been made at the neighbouring Sudbourne which is known to have been an important Anglo-Saxon manor. Orford has been documented from the early half of the twelfth century, predating the construction of Orford Castle, which suggested Orford as a village has stood, and been centred on fishing, from around 1100.
In the twelfth century, King Henry II chose to build a castle in Orford to consolidate royal power in the region. This development brought dramatic changes to Orford. Prior to the building of Orford castle, Suffolk was dominated by the Bigod family who held the title of Earl of Norfolk and owned key castles at Framlingham, Bungay, Walton and Thetford. Hugh Bigod had been involved in a group of dissenting barons during the Anarchy of King Stephen, the previous monarch. Henry confiscated the four castles from Hugh, although he later returned Framlingham and Bungay, and built his own castle in Orford.
Construction of the castle began in 1165 and completed in 1173. It is estimated that construction of St Bartholomew’s Church happened around the same time, as a ‘chapel’ to the existing parish church at Sudbourne. Both builds occupy commanding sites in the village and were both beneficial as landmarks that guided sailors to Orford. In 1167, the castle was even host to The Merman of Orford!
The design of the castle was considered unique, and termed “one of the most remarkable keeps in England”. The 90ft keep was encircled by a curtain wall which is believed to have contained four flanking towers and a fortified gatehouse. The castle, including the surround ditch, palisade and stone bridge, cost £1413 to build. Some of the timbers came from as far away as Scarborough and the detailed stonework was carved from limestone sourced from Normandy, and limestone from Northamptonshire with the rest of the stones sourced locally. The marshes nearby were drained, turning the village of Orford into a sheltered port. This action no doubt aided Orford in becoming an important fishing village during the Middle Ages. Trade increased, merchant guilds were formed and Orford market held an annual fair on August 24th, St Bartholomew’s Day.
The nave and tower of the original church were rebuilt in 1320-40. The castle stayed in royal hands for just over 150 years until 1336 when it was sold by Edward III. No longer a royal castle and as the economy of Orford declined the castle gradually decayed. The estuary of the River Ore silted up and the spit of Orford Ness increased, resulting in access to the harbour becoming more difficult. Trade declined which reduced the importance of the castle as the centre of local government. The curtain walls collapsed and the stone was either sold or stolen. The keep was maintained principally as it was a useful landmark for shipping.
In 1673, Orford was described as “in former times a Town of good account for fishing, but that trade being lost, the Town cannot find itself”. In 1772 Daniel Defoe described Orford as “once a good town, but now decayed”.
In 1805, Francis Seymour-Conway, the 2nd Marquess of Hertford, proposed destroying the castle but was prevented doing so by government on the grounds that the castle provided a valuable landmark for ships approaching from Holland. Francis’ son undertook conservation efforts in 1831 and even furnished the top of the keep as an apartment for use of guests.
Sir Arthur Churchman bought Orford castle in 1928 and gave the property to the Orford Town Trust in 1930. Orford Ness was home to the birthplace of radar in the 1930’s as well as a pioneering air station.
During the Second World War, the castle was refortified with barbed wire to form what was originally intended to an anti-aircraft emplacement but was instead used as a radar emplacement. In 1962 the castle was given to the Ministry of Works and is now maintained by English Heritage. The keep of the castle is the only part of the structure remaining intact although the earthwork remains of the bailey walls are still visible. The castle is a scheduled monument and a Grade I listed building.
Orford is the only access point to Havergate Island and Orford Ness, both sites traveled to via ferry from Orford quay. Orford Ness Lighthouse stands remote on the coast of Orford Ness and is perhaps one of the most iconic buildings in Suffolk with its red and white stripes. The Lighthouse is 30 metres tall and can be seen for miles around. The Lighthouse that stands today was built in 1792 but the history of lighthouses in Orford dates back to 1637 to the construction of a pair of wooden leading lights. Orford Ness Lighthouse was decommissioned in 2013 due to the encroaching sea. Efforts have been made to save the Lighthouse but it is expected that it will only survive for a further 8 years before it falls into the sea.
Orford Ness itself is divided from the mainland by the River Alde, having been formed by longshore drift along the coast. The material of the spit comes from places further north, such as Dunwich. This feature of the land has played a large role in the history of Orford and will continue to do so for many years to come. Orford Ness is part of a significant portion of the European reserve of vegetated shingle habitat, which is internationally scarce, highly fragile and very easily damaged and is a site of Special Scientific Interest.
Havergate Island is the only island in Suffolk. It was first walled for land reclamation around 500 years ago and for much of its history it has been used for farming. The arable land was used for grazing cattle, and at times even for smuggling. The last inhabitants left the island at the end of the 1920s. It was used for grazing once more over the summers of the 1930’s and in 1933 a gravel company set up shingle extraction on the island but this venture was to be found unprofitable. During the Second World War, the military took control of the island along with Orford Ness. Due to the lack of human intervention over this period of time, the island flooded in parts rendering it unsuitable for further agricultural use. In 1947, avocets were found breeding on the island for the first time in England for over 100 years, and raised 8 chicks between them. Since then, the island has been protected by the RSPB. Today, there is a fee to access the island, which is reduced for RSPB members. Havergate Island today consists of 6 salt water lagoons covering 60 hectares. There is also 40 hectares of salt marsh and a further 4 of vegetated shingle as well as grazing marsh and mud flats. The island is home to a variety of wading birds, rare gulls and other species. The breeding population of pied avocets there is the largest in the country and is the only place in the Uk where breeding Sandwich terns can be found. Other birds to be found on the island include oystercatchers, redshanks, ringed plovers, golden plovers, dunlin, greenshank and turnstones to name a few.
Today, Orford depends increasingly on leisure and tourism but sustains a busy village store, doctor’s surgery, primary school, a hotel, two restaurants, an artisan bakery, two public houses and a garage. Several small businesses also operate in the village, including a number of commercial fishing operations, as well as recreational ground with tennis courts, a pavilion and sports club.