Fight Night: Nuclear Weapons
vs Branston pickle
18 March 2022: The National Trust are advertising for an experienced sailor to operate the short ferry crossing between the Suffolk village of Orford and the shingle spit of Orford Ness, a former atomic weapons research base.
In July 2021 I set out on a 500 mile walk around the coasts of Suffolk and Essex with two companions: Ali Pretty of arts organisation Kinetika and John Offord from the BBC.
We started at Lowestoft and by Day Five had reached Orford where we boarded the ferry to Orford Ness, a place that has a reputation for UFO sightings and strange goings-on.
I wonder what attracted the Ministry of Defence to Orford Ness back in 1913? Was it the legends of the merman who had been captured and kept in prison for seven years before he made his escape? Or the green children seen wandering across its vegetated shingle, an environment that scientists realised, rather more recently, was far rarer than coral reefs? This ten-mile shingled spit, you see, has always had an air of mystery about it, something the MoD would add to over the next 80 years before handing it over to the National Trust in 1993.
Days before we even reach Orford and wait for the ferry to cross the River Ore, we are starting to hear about the place. 'We'll never know what really went on there,' is one comment. Others are absolutely certain: 'UFOs were sighted. It was all hushed up, of course.' Yet more folk mutter darkly about certain local disputes and finish with vague statements that might be considered menacing: 'I don't know what the National Trust are up to.'
Our 500-mile coastal walk now pauses for a day to investigate the Ness. The boat across seems fairly ordinary, but on the other side a man in camouflage gear and sun glasses instructs us to only follow the marked red route. There are two reasons for this: firstly, we might step on a bird's egg, and secondly, we might step on an unexploded bomb. His finger traces the permitted route on a map: out across the bridge, then down a long line of distinct buildings, all separated from each other by a few hundred yards of shingle. We can go as far as the Atomic Weapons Research facility. No further.
Someone asks his name and he looks surprised, moving back towards his camouflaged all-terrain vehicle. "I might be Dave," he says, "Everyone here is called Dave."
His vehicle growls away, at about three miles per hour.
Can we trust the National Trust, I wonder. What if a maverick wild bunch of Daves have gone Colonel Kurtz out in the shingle? Orford Ness has a reputation for weird stuff.
We walk to a metal military bridge across a creek and enter the outer vastness of shingle dotted with concrete bunkers and constructions. A deer explodes from some long grass and startles a hare which runs in front of me. It was here on Orford in 1935 that Robert Watson-Watt and his team began the long process of inventing Radar, a process that in some ways was completed twenty-one years later when Watson-Watt was caught speeding, by a radar gun.
I walk to a ruin on the beach, then along the beach and back inland to a group of structures. There is nothing remarkable, or beautiful, about any of them. They are the remnants of attempts to find better ways to kill people and the only attractive aspect is how nature is slowly dispensing justice, by destroying them. The salt eats away at the iron, the wind sings in the railings, and the gulls crap on everything. Far away to the north I can see the white dome of Sizewell B nuclear reactor.
A lady in National Trust uniform stops on a bicycle. Is she called Dave? "I like coming out here," she tells me, "It's the real world." There is a pause in which I wonder if there is any possible reply to this comment.
"When I first came,” she goes on, “I'd go out on the shingle and just scream."
"Perhaps that started a few mysteries back in town?"
"It made me feel better." She smiles enigmatically and accelerates away from me without pedaling.
The largest buildings are the three laboratories where atomic weapons research was pursued from the 1950s. Artworks have been temporarily installed in two of them, but they don't add anything to my experience. I'd prefer grafitti: Banksy or some colour-crazy jive artists from Senegal's Île de Gorée (where they have brilliantly defaced and reused old French military structures). I sit down and eat my sandwich: cheddar cheese and Branston pickle, a condiment that was discovered at about the same time as the nuclear physics that brought about atomic weapons. Branston has enriched my life a lot more than nuclear weapons and yet, while men like Rutherford, Einstein and Oppenheimer have been lauded and celebrated, the creator of Branston remains unknown to most people. It was, in fact, Mrs Caroline Graham who lived at Branston Lodge in Burton-on-Trent. She honed the perfect fusion of 23 ingredients, including exotic stuff like rutabaga seeds, Sicilian lemon juice and Indian dates, then after extensive testing on her daughters Evelyn and Ermentrude, sold out the recipe to Crosse and Blackwell. Commercial production started in 1922 on the site of a former machine gun factory. After that brief moment of glory, Mrs Graham slid back into obscurity, content no doubt that she had brought pleasure to millions rather than Armageddon.
Another all-terrain vehicle passes bearing a burly man in sunglasses. Could that be Kurtz? I head towards the last building, a huge concrete silo, half-buried in shingle. I'm expecting to find Marlon Brando in one of its three bays, wearing the ceremonial dress uniform of a National Trust general and staring out at the madness of humanity, croaking his last despairing words: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’ before heading off to find the tearooms. But there is no one there, only a discarded length of wallpaper, stretched out and scrunched up on a table. I consider that it might be concealing something interesting and wonder about pulling it off to look underneath, but the National Trust signage is all about not touching. Unexploded ordnance?
I walk back towards the ferry, passing a silo where an artwork has a guardian to watch over it, and explain its meaning. She watches me coming past: "What did you think of that artwork?" she asks. It is only then that I realise the discarded wallpaper was actually a commissioned installation.
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This beautiful film by Fotis Begklis records our 500-mile trek in July 2021