In 2013 I became involved in a research project being run by the University of East Anglia. The plan was to document the sites involved in order to produce a body of work – paintings, drawings and photographs – but also to collect archive material from the East Anglian Film Archives as well as from the local population who had lived with the disturbances of these sites.
Since studying for my MA at Norwich School of Art I have felt a strong affinity with Norfolk. It was here that I first became interested in the strange counterpoint of military machinery and the British landscape, particularly from American airbases juxtaposed against the ploughed fields and cabbage crops of the countryside, and this was to influence my work for a long time to come.
East Anglia was chosen as it contains a variety of Cold War sites, including the former RAF Coltishall airfield; the Radar station at Neatishead; Orford Ness, which housed our Atomic Weapons and Radar Research facilities; and Gorse Hill Industrial Estate in Thetford, formally RAF Barnham, which was one of Britain’s first nuclear bomb storage facilities.
East Anglia’s geographical position on the East Coast, combined with the large number of existing military sites in the region, meant that East Anglia was destined to play a significant role in the Cold War.
Historians increasingly see the Cold War as an identifiable historical era, which spawned its own social, intellectual, political and cultural history. However, a majority of the research surrounding the Cold War has been concentrated on policy making and military strategy. This project aimed to readdress the balance by examining the impact on a local level. The front line of this secretive war lay in the heart of Britain’s rural communities, where nuclear weapons sites, listening stations and airbases sprang up next to small villages.
The basic characteristic of military architecture has always been its responsiveness and adaptability to changes in technology and consequent changes in military tactics and strategy. As the Cold War progressed and the technology of warfare altered, these landscapes saw successive stages of new militarisation, but the scale of this remains largely uncharted.
My own research began at Orford Ness which has had a long history of military use, evident in the remnants of its architecture. I had visited the Ness before when it was first open to the public but I had never had full access before. I remember being intrigued by the strange pagoda-like buildings that looked so incongruous rising from the shingle spit.
The War Department brought the land in 1913 for research into aerial warfare. Among the pioneering works done here were the early experiments on the parachute and aerial photography. In 1924 it became a firing and bombing range, and by the Second World War it was used for bomb ballistics tests and firing trials.
After World War Two, Orford Ness became an Atomic Weapons Research Establishment site, with six test laboratories built between 1953 and 1966. These labs provided an artificial replication of the rigours to which an atomic weapon might be subjected before detonation, including vibration, extremes of temperature, humidity and G-force.
But Orford Ness is much more than this. It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest as the geomorphology of the land is of great rarity. The vegetated shingle spit is the biggest in Europe, stretching for 10 miles. The Ness also boasts rare brackish marshes as well as saltwater and freshwater marshes and reed beds, attracting many resident and migrant birds. The importance of this habitat is the main reason the National Trust acquired the spit in 1993.
The beach here shelves sharply and storms can dramatically alter the beach profile. This desolate and beguiling spit of land is barely above sea level and is at the constant mercy of the North Sea. The buildings are decaying at an alarming rate and the National Trust has decided to permit the ‘natural decay’ of the military buildings. This decay was the first thing I noticed from my previous visit, particularly the dilapidated old look-out house that I had painted after my first visit in 1995. The other thing was the spread of the Red Valerian plant – apparently rather controversial as it is not indigenous to the Ness, but very photogenic.
Test lab 1 is still available for the public to view. It was the first of the atomic weapons test cells to be constructed in 1956. The pit was designed to replicate the size of an aircraft’s bomb bay and was large enough to house Britain’s first atomic bomb, the Blue Danube. It was used for both vibration and drop testing. Shingle abutments give much needed reinforcement to the concrete walls, allowing them to take the strain of the vibration equipment. They also give these labs the appearance of huge burial mounds.
The other labs are closed to the public for safety reasons. The strangest of these are test labs 4 and 5, known locally as ‘the pagodas’. The columns, which hold up the heavy, reinforced concrete roof, were designed to collapse in the event of an accident. The roof was designed to absorb a vertical blast and dissipate an explosion by sealing the lab beneath it.
My only disappointment at my visit to the Ness was not being able to visit the site of Cobra Mist, once our most powerful over-the-horizon-radar (OTHR). And human nature being what it is, this made me more intrigued by this secretive site.
Although troubled and plagued by problems in its short history, Cobra Mist was the most powerful and sophisticated backscatter radar of its time. It was built to overlook all air and missile activity in Eastern Europe and the USSR. The aerials that formed a fan-shaped web of antennae occupied an impressive 135-acre site. This costly venture was beset with problems from the outset. Construction began in 1967 but because the large site had to be cleared of bombs first – owing to the site’s history – it wasn’t completed until 1972, and the whole project was abandoned in 1973. Its problems lay in the severe background noise generated, which made its signals undecipherable. Although there was much speculation as to what caused the failure of Cobra Mist, a Pentagon report of 1972 stated that; “They could transmit, but the computers could not decipher”1. This suggests that Cobra Mist was so sensitive and efficient that the computers at the time were just not capable of processing the large amounts of information generated.
I then visited the former RAF Coltishall, located 10 miles north of Norwich. This particular airfield was substantially remodelled in the Cold War. A new longer runway was installed and operational-ready platforms were added. These were used as part of ‘Operation Fabulous’, where aircraft could be maintained ready for immediate response in case of a nuclear attack. Freestanding vertical walls were erected to protect the vulnerable aircraft as they sat next to the runway. It also houses a rather odd-looking piece of machinery used for testing and maintaining the Jaguar aircraft.
The next step was to visit RAF Barnham in Thetford, now Gorse Hill Industrial Estate, where I was kindly shown around by Keith Eldred, the sites owner. As a disused nuclear storage facility, I found this site surprisingly Arcadian, a serene haven for wildlife. Although, there were some sinister reminders of its past.
The small brick huts that cover much of the site all have nuclear symbols painted on the doors, and the concrete lamp posts that once lit these areas have red panic buttons attached to them at chest height. The huts were built to store the fissile core from the bomb. The initiator was made of polonium, a highly unstable element, so these cores needed a high level of monitoring and maintenance, and needed to be reassembled every few months.
The storage site is in the form of a pentagon. It covers 23 acres, the perimeter defined by an eight-feet high chain-link fence with a watchtower situated at each corner. There are a series of 57 storage huts, giving this site the capacity to hold 64 fissile cores. A terrifying thought. There are also three buildings at the centre of the site that were designed to house the non-nuclear explosives and the casing of the bomb.
Britain’s first nuclear bomb ‘Blue Danube’ was very cumbersome. It was 7.3 meters long and weighed over 4500kg. So these stores were built with gantries and hoists to cope with lifting the massive bulk of the Blue Danube bomb.
Although ground level security was tight, no attempt was made to camouflage the site from the air. But given the potential capacity of this site it may be that the high visibility was intended to exaggerate the UK’s nuclear capability.
I also visited RAF Bawburgh in Norwich, although one can only view this building from a distance as it is in private hands. This unassuming bungalow actually hides a three-storey structure hidden below. This building had a crucial role to play in the Cold War, being the operation centre for East Anglia.
In the centre of the bunker was the operations room, which occupied the full height of the well. Information was displayed on one wall and round the other three were control cabins overlooking the displays. From here radar was controlled and aircraft directed.
Although the subsequent exhibition, and therefore some of the work from this research was never fully realised, I am truly grateful for all those involved in the project and everyone that showed me around these intriguing sites. I will no doubt return to these haunts and make more work in the future.
For me these sites have become emblematic of 20thcentury warfare, the dilapidated buildings at Orford Ness a stark monument. The development of deadly weapons with the ability to threaten ‘Total Warfare’ came to be known as Mutually Assured Destruction, or aptly called MAD for short. Although all these sites have a somewhat sinister presence, reminding us how close we came to annihilation, at least the work done here helped prevent either side from turning the Cold War hot.
- Most Secret – The Hidden History of Orford Ness. Paddy Heazell, The History Press in association with the National Trust, 2010, p212
- John F. Kennedy’s speech Announcing the quarantine against Cuba, Washington, October 22nd1962.
Cold War – Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946–1989. Wayne D Cocroft and Roger J C Thomas. Edited by P S Barnwell, English Heritage, 2003.
With thanks to Dr. Richard Maguire at UEA, Richard Deswarte from the East Anglian Film Archives, Keith Eldred from Gorse Industrial Estate, David Gurney from Norfolk County Council, Chris Morshead from RAF Air Defence Radar Museum and Ducan Kent from the National Trust at Orford Ness.