We spent a day yesterday on a guided tour of Orford Ness, a 12 mile long by 1 mile wide strip of shingle and marsh that licks its way along the Suffolk coast, shifting and twisting itself over the millenia to catch the best angle.

For the past one hundred years it’s been mostly a secret. First for the ministry of defence to test their bombs. Then for the AWRE to test their atomic weapons. It became a National Trust property in 1993. orfordNess

Orford Ness is a juxtaposition of values. There’s the arrogance of military; if taking human life is the accepted norm, what odds for a strip of nature and a few meagre plants? It boasts of the pride of empire, my bomb is bigger than your bomb. There’s the dominance of nature; give me your paltry metal and watch the force of my seasalt lash. Let me show you true destruction.

It’s a silent, eerie place. The oystercatchers and the curlews cry their plaintive shrills while the giant ears listen iover the horizon to the far-off Slavic frequencies: What did you do in the dasha, Ivan, and shall we invade in the spring? The cobra mist spits its forked tounge into the banality, seeking the sweet honey of secret.

It’s a desert. Shingle trudges where the stones suck at your heavy boots – don’t leave us, we’ve been alone for so so long, stay a little while. The sun bakes the dessication and you wonder how long that ferry ride must have been to take you to this alien place. Like the song says: in the desert you can remember your name. Except here there are few indeed who want to give you no pain.

It’s a paradox. The pagoda-shaped blast chambers with walls of concrete many metres thick, precision-engineered interiors and a roof designed to blast away. Now that shingle roof is a boutique hotel for black-backed gulls, who can’t believe their good luck. It’s the penthouse suite legacy of cold war paranoia.

Surrounded by concrete brutalism and the enigma of militarism I watched a kestrel kill. It hovered like a state-of-the-art, red-flecked flying machine and then dropped with precision onto an oh-so-weak enemy.  Then another swoop to the rustbucket oil drum to contemplate its victory and consume the gory reward of success.

At least the kestrel won. Another meal and another chance to pass on its genes. The cold war bombers seem the last to carry the family name. Who knew that war would cease to be about the stout fellows of empire raising their fists (but following the rules of course, one isn’t a hooligan) to give the other chap a jolly good thrashing?

Perhaps the shingle whispered it, but no-one was listening?

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name,
It felt good to be out of the rain.
In the desert you can remember your name,
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.
–America – A Horse With No Name (1971)

Listen to the Ness, it speaks gull, it speaks wave, it speaks rust, it speaks lichen.
–Robert Macfarlane (2012)