Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Orford Ness: Atom Bomb Test Site & Nature Reserve

It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
There's a shingle spit to the east of Woodbridge, Suffolk. Pretty much uninhabitable but Lord Braybrooke built a lighthouse there in 1792 and a martello tower was erected as a defence against potential invasion by Napoleon and his French hordes. In 1913, however, the Ministry of Defence realised its potential as a weapons testing site and began dropping bombs, firing bullets, throwing hand grenades and generally having a smashing time. They built an airfield, radar stations, and various military quarters there. At one point German prisoners of war were held there (although not for target practice, I hope).
With the invention of the atom bomb it became necessary to develop effective ways of ensuring accurate delivery of said weaponry to its target. This was in the days before reliable missiles and computer modelling, so the atom bomb was actually dropped and they had to be sure that the impact would not damage the detonation system, and that the bomb would pierce it's target. So the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment did loads of tests at Orford Ness, dropping bombs from planes and monitoring how they fell, with or without parachute retardation, so that bomber crews could be properly trained in aiming the bombs. Don't worry though; the bombs were unarmed so there's no nuclear residue. I wonder how relevant this was, given that an atom bomb is designed to cause massive destruction over a wide area so it wouldn't matter if you missed Stalin's bunker by a hundred yards or so. But there you go. It kept them off the streets.There's a small exhibition in which you can see an actual atom bomb, the WE-177.
All this became unnecessary with the development of guided missiles so eventually the MOD abandoned the site and handed it over to The National Trust. Any unexploded ordnance has been removed from the site (fingers crossed) and The National Trust have just left it alone to allow nature to come back and re-take possession. Paths, buildings and lumps of concrete remain but otherwise, apart from the (new) lighthouse there's nothing there except birds, flowers and a few sheep. Of course, being flat, cold, barren and windy it's not very hospitable so the birds keep a low profile and the plants are extremely small and hardy.

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