A Site of Special Scientific Interest, Orford Ness is the largest bank of shingle in Europe, with unique and rare species of plant and animal peppered amongst decaying military structures. One could spend a day on Orford Ness and once disembarking from the small foot ferry, not actually meet another person for the duration of the stay.
I accompanied the film team from the BORN Quest, their project to document Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty along the Suffolk coast. Our guide, the caretaker of Orford Ness, spent a morning driving and showing us around the sixteen mile long shingle spit.
The area was a haunt for smugglers during the 1800s, though it was dominated by the military during the twentieth century. Britain’s first atomic weapon, Blue Danube, was developed and tested in large pagodas which dominate the coast. The skeletal remains of other buildings used during the two World Wars and during the Cold War are scattered across the shingle.
The waters around Orford Ness have several strange stories attributed to them. In 1749 The Gentleman’s Magazine carried a story concerning several fishermen who were attacked by a winged crocodile-like creature which they snagged in their nets while off the coast in this area. The beast killed one man and disabled another before being slain. The ‘sea-dragon’ as it came to be known, measured just over a metre in length (though was said to be larger when alive), and possessed two legs with cloven feet. A fisherman travelled the county of Suffolk displaying the creature, though what became of the oddity is unknown.
The 1197 case of the Orford Merman is well documented (albeit a short while after the event by Ralph of Coggeshall) and still embraced by locals – a local pub is named after him. A ‘man’ from the sea was caught and held in the castle for a period of six months before finally escaping back into the ocean. The merman never talked during his captivity, and appeared to have a preference for fish over other types of food.
Most sea monster tales can be explained away as cases of mistaken identity (eg a long neck as the arm of a squid or the mermaid as manatee), but what identified sea creature resembles a winged crocodile? What manatee spends six months in a castle before escaping back into the wild? There is much for historical cryptozoologists to investigate in this area of Suffolk.
Certain ufologists have maintained that parts of the island have been used to store downed alien craft. The current caretaker of the island laughed away the possibility of UFO cover up, though did point out the large grey building, now owned by Merlin Communications International Ltd, on the Cobra Mist site where a few investigators believe a spaceship still remains.