The best view of the great shingle spit that is Orford Ness is to be had from the air. Most visitors must make do with seeing it from the ground and the roof of the Ballistics Building or the lantern of the lighthouse provide excellent vantage points. This rare natural phenomenon, 11 miles in length, is one of the three such banks of shingle in Britain, the others being at Dungeness, Kent and Chesil Beach, Dorset. The Orford Ness has an added importance for the remarkable level of plant life that it supports.
This vegetation happens because of the unique way the shingle has evolved. Aerial photographs show that the site looks as if a giant harrow has been driven down it, creating ridge lines and furrows within which, over the centuries, plants have flourished. During the 1920s, research by Professor Stears, geography professor at Cambridge, demonstrated that these ridges were the result of east coast storms over the past 10,000 years. These storms piled the shingle up into long banks and helped the spit to stretch ever further south from Aldeburgh towards Felixstowe. Each bank tended to see larger pebbles sink down and the small ones remain on the ridges, making conditions right for plants to become established. It is a measure of the importance of the place that it represents almost 15% of the world’s vegetated shingle. So the visitor may expect to find over forty different species of plant, including the lovely yellow horned poppy, sheets of sea thrift and sea lavender and clumps of valerian. The delicate sea pea is slowly returning. In 1555 it grew in such profusion along this shore that famine from a failure in the harvest was staved off by the cropping of these pretty, fragile members of the pea family.
A consequence of the mobile nature of this coast has been the steady movement of the point of the Ness. Centuries ago it was a mile further north and likewise the mouth of the river Ore lay opposite Havergate Island, which enabled Orford to provide a genuine coastal refuge for shipping. Now, the Ness lies almost directly opposite the village, and the mouth of the river, at North Weir Point, across from the hamlet of Shingle Street, is five miles off. Another grim reality of this movement is the pace of erosion at the Ness, currently about four meters a year. This explains why the lighthouse tower is increasingly at risk.
Visitors may wonder at this word, Ness. It is a word related in Old English to nose or Naze (as in Essex) and has nothing whatever to do with the Scottish Loch. The geographers in England favour nesses, points and heads for naming what would generally be recognised as a cape. There is in fact only a single English cape and only one in Scotland (Cornwall and Wrath respectively).
Geology and geography played a key role in persuading the National Trust to undertake the acquisition of this whole 2,000 acre property in 1993. There were understandable concerns over the residue of unexploded ordnance, the hazards of derelict buildings and the insecurity of the sea defences. But the unique nature of this shingle bank (and, perhaps strangely, the echoes of Benjamin Britten’s music which was so influenced by this shore) proved to be the crucial persuasive factors in going ahead to raise the £3M+ needed to buy it from the MoD and make it safe for the visitors who began to flood over from 1995, the Trust’s centenary year. Another milestone was passed by this event. The great coastal rescue project, then called Enterprise Neptune, which aimed to ‘save’ by acquisition up to 900 miles of sea shore from being spoilt, passed the 550 mile mark with the opening of Orford Ness. Fifteen years on, and the total has reached 700 miles.