As the visitor approaches Orford by road the unmistakable shape of Orford Ness lighthouse may be fleetingly glimpsed a couple of miles away by the seashore to the east; its red and white stripes vivid even on the dullest of days. It has stood there since 1792 and quite apart from its importance as a vital aid to mariners, it has been always in the vanguard of technical development. Originally it was the taller one of a pair, the lower light by the shore providing a sure means of getting an accurate bearing.
The Low Light was washed into the sea during the late 19th century. Sadly, this survivor will follow suit in the not too distant future. In 1837, the private owner of the Ness Light, Lord Braybrooke, was compelled by Act of Parliament to surrender his property to the prestigious corporation, Trinity House.
It owns the building and land on which it stands. Over the years it has had to operate in partnership with whoever was in possession of the rest of Orford Ness – for most of the last century, the War Office/Ministry of Defence, and since 1993, the National Trust. Straddling the lighthouse tower were two cottages with outbuildings for the keepers’ families, some of which still stand.
The cottages were demolished after the Second World War. The keepers’ families were withdrawn in 1936, when the increasingly important military work going on all around them led to the need to tighten security. Prior to this, what a lonely place it must have been. Yet astonishingly, they were living under the tracks of the main experimental bombing range of the RAF. All access to the village necessitated a long walk past the nerve-centre of the range, across shingle and grazing marsh to the river, to pick up a ferry. The children would then have had to walk a further mile or so up to the school. In winter, life must have been particularly tough.
The equipment installed in the Ness Light was invariably ‘state of the art’. It was the first on the east coast to use oil for the lantern. In the 1860s, new Fresnel prisms were introduced with the latest types of reflective mirrors. The consultant engineer who invented the light-flashing system was one John Hopkinson, whose son Bertram became Professor of Engineering at Cambridge and was commanding officer in the Royal Flying Corps in overall charge on the Ness, until killed in a flying accident in 1918. The Ness Light was later electrified in 1959 and then fully automated, controlled remotely from Harwich.
The last keepers to operate on site departed on 20th September 1965. But monthly visits to check the equipment continued, and led to further innovations, with a Logic Control Unit in 1991. This was intended to make failure impossible. But it did fail. This was due to faulty lightning conductors in 2000, but that aside, the Ness continues to serve all types of mariner to this day. This has always been a particularly hazardous coastline, with currents and shoals necessitating careful navigation. Over the years a number of vessels have come to grief on the Ness.
In recent years the volume of shipping has increased, with the development of Felixstowe as one of the world’s major container ports. There has always been a heavy flow of local and inshore traffic, with goods being ferried to London from the north-east coast ports. And until relatively recently, in-shore fishing has been a major activity. On top of this, and with international ferry services across the North Sea, there has been a major growth in recreational sailing. East Anglia is noted for its river estuaries with safe anchorages and marinas.
All this makes the threat of abandonment of the Ness Light a matter of grave local concern. But coastal erosion is currently averaging 4 meters a year and the survival of the whole structure is in serious doubt.
A few yards to the south of the lighthouse stands the derelict remains of what was once a fine Victorian-period coastguard’s lookout. Throughout the 19th century, the coastguard service performed a most important role in what was the location for serious smuggling. This is the setting for the notable legendary story of Margaret Catchpole. Alas, the pace of coastal erosion has removed any thought of restoring the building. For over 200 years, Orford Ness lighthouse has played its part in guarding the east coast.
During the two World Wars, the light was extinguished except when authorised by the Royal Navy to guide a coastal convoy. It was too a useful marker for incoming bombers returning from raids over Germany. The tower inevitably was allowed to deteriorate. It was actually machine-gunned by the Luftwaffe. A V-1 doodlebug exploded by it in 1944, and an Italian aircraft crashed in 1940 only a few yards to the north. Now, its survival is threatened as never before.
Visitors who admire its bright red and white stripes and its handsome proportions are advised to enjoy them while they can. Orford must surely within the next decade lose an iconic sight.
By Paddy Heazell
To read more from Paddy Heazell about the history of Orford Ness, see his fascinating book, ‘Most Secret: The Hidden History of Orford Ness.’