Researching Secrecy Amidst the Ruins of Orford Ness

Profile picture of Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor William Walters

Professor William Walters, Benjamin Meaker Visiting Research Professor, University of Bristol

The heat of the Cold War forged a world in which national security came to be staked upon complex and large-scale technoscientific systems, the most notable being atomic weaponry. One of the consequences of this development was to accord state secrecy a new geography. States on both sides of the bipolar conflict created closed areas, and even whole cities (e.g., Oak Ridge in the US or the ‘closed’ cities of the USSR), dedicated to military research, development and deployment. This new covert geography was not confined to the surface of the earth, nor its surveillance from the sky by planes and satellites. A new underworld also took shape with the expansion of bunkers, tunnels, silos and control rooms. Most aspects of this new security infrastructure were deemed top secret. Physical access to these sites was tightly controlled. Knowledge about their very existence and location was strictly policed. And work within these settings was rigidly ‘compartmented’, structured on a ‘need-to-know’ basis.  The construction and management of these covert, dedicated infrastructures was a huge undertaking which gave rise to a new kind of shadow world, one that most citizens could glimpse only through rumour, fiction, and the occasional leak.

Orford Ness, Photographer: William Walters.

Some parts of this infrastructure, such as the Nevada National Security Site, remain in active use, being no less subject to official secrecy today than they were at the height of the Cold War. But other parts have been decommissioned and sometimes left to ruin. Falling into the latter category is Orford Ness. Located on the most easterly part of the Suffolk coast, Orford Ness was from World War I until the mid-1970s a key research and testing site for the UK’s military establishment as well as its US allies. Such research included not only bomb ballistics, aerial photography and experiments with radar, but also the stress testing of atomic weapons. In 1993 the National Trust bought the Orford Ness site from the Ministry of Defense.

Besides its historical significance, the NT’s acquisition was also motivated by the fact that Orford Ness is the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe and thus of great ecological value.  During the summer months the NT allows visitors to explore the ruined landscape of Orford Ness, glimpsing not only rare birds but the mysterious observation towers, debris-strewn bombing ranges, and the crumbling remnants of the giant concrete laboratories where the UK’s atomic weapons were once heated, cooled, spun and vibrated in preparation for their live testing on distant Pacific  islands and the interior deserts of Australia. I had grown up in a small town a mere 20 minute drive from Orford Ness. The nuclear power stations at nearby Sizewell were palpable signs of Britain’s investment in atomic energy. But like many locals I had no idea of the presence of this other kind of nuclear activity.

Orford Ness, Photographer: William Walters.

A Benjamin Meaker Visiting Fellowship gave me the opportunity to spend several days at the University of Bristol in November 2018 advancing my research on Orford Ness and meeting other scholars and artists with a shared interest in discourses, practices, and paradoxes of state secrecy. My visit focused on two events: participating in a scholarly workshop on secrecy, and delivering a public lecture.

The workshop was convened by Dr Elspeth Van Veeren of the Secrecy and Security Working Group in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies entitled ‘Secrecy and (In)Security: New Perspectives. It brought together academics and artists who share an interest in renewing security research on secrecy. Topics included the potential of photography as a mode of understanding the paradoxes of secrecy within state strategies of counter-terrorism, the way in which public information campaigns made listening and chatting into sites of governing secrecy during WWII, and the arts of writing secrecy. My own contribution explored the idea of everyday secrecy, and built on a set of interviews with veterans who had worked at Orford Ness during the Cold War.

My public lecture was entitled: What can the ruins of an atomic weapons testing facility tell us about the multiplicity of secrecy? The event was in fact a co-presentation. My co-speaker was David Warren, a Volunteer Ranger and Researcher at Orford Ness. David is a veteran of this research site having worked there as a young scientific assistant in the early 1960s. Over the last few years, and at the behest of the NT, he located and conducted interviews with over 60 veterans of Orford Ness, a sample that included pilots, senior engineers, clerical staff, and construction workers. It is this rich and varied oral history archive that I have drawn on in examining everyday secrecy at the Ness. Given the fact his research has laid a foundation for my own I was grateful that the Meaker fellowship could provide such a platform for a collaborative public event.

Whereas David’s presentation focused mostly on key features of its scientific and military past, mine examined what Orford Ness can teach us about the cultural construction of secrecy. In the political sciences we tend to see secrecy in realist terms. For example, scholars debate the need for security policy to find the appropriate ‘balance’ between governmental secrecy and a democratic public’s right to know. Secrecy appears in these discussions a bit like a quantity, or a setting on a dial. But what of all the ways in which secrecy acquires qualitative meaning? How is secrecy performed? How is it experienced by publics? Under what conditions do we as citizens participate in the construction of secrecy ourselves? And what role do particular places and sites play in our imaginings of secrecy? What role does place play in creating particular cultural geographies of the covert?

Orford Ness offers a rich case study to seek answers to these questions. As I showed in my lecture, many kinds of actors have converged on Orford Ness, each producing a different and distinctive mediation of what they see as its qualities of mystery, secrecy and intrigue. The National Trust managers themselves identified mystery as a key quality of Orford Ness when they took possession of this place from the Ministry of Defense. In planning documents they highlighted mystery as a quality they sought to preserve as a kind of heritage. Their management of the site has actively curated a kind of aesthetic experience for visitors. By allowing its structures to slowly ruinate they have contributed to a mood of estrangement and unease in the visitor. When I first visited Orford Ness it brought to mind some key scenes in Tarkovsky’s epic film, STALKER (1980). Three travellers venture into a forbidden zone; debris lies all around, something very sinister has happened there, but what?

Still from STALKER (1979), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky: USSR.

Orford Ness has also been a popular destination for ornithologists, walkers, photographers, documentarians, writers and other kinds of artist. Now, it is not as though these visitors simply record a mood of secrecy that is in any way self-evident or natural. Rather, their imaginative and creative practices intensify affective and cognitive engagements with the covert, making secrecy intelligible in new ways. One sees this, for example, in the work of Louise Wilson. Her A Record of Fear set out to explore Orford Ness as a soundscape of secrecy. In the process she reminds us that secrecy is never just a matter of what is seen and unseen; it inheres just as much in the gaps between the spoken and the unspoken, in the faintly audible register of the whisper, or the viral agency and slippery medium of the rumour. Secrecy is as much aural as it is visual. Perhaps this finding would not surprise Brian Eno. One of the godfathers of ambient soundscape, Eno hails from this part of Suffolk. Listen to his On Land (1982), a recording which references places like Lantern Marsh on the Ness. Combining pastoral tones with an underlying machine drone punctuated by clanking and buzzing noises, Eno’s soundscape attunes us to the eeriness of the Orford Ness experience.

Finally, one could say that secrecy is also being constructed and performed at Orford Ness within a discursive register of urban exploration. For several decades now small groups of adventurers have been breaking into abandoned hospitals, hidden tunnels under cities, and other forbidden or invisible places. These place hackers typically film and blog about their experiences. In place hacking it seems secrecy becomes associated with truth in a new way: accessing particular sites becomes constructed as an authentic experience, something really real which ordinary tourism cannot approach. Orford Ness has not escaped the attention of the place hackers, as I learned when speaking to the National Trust managers. But it has also seen the mainstreaming of place hacking. In one episode of his popular TV series, Hidden History of Britain, former Tory minister Michael Portillo visited the atomic ruins. Or as the Radio Times’ blurb put it: ‘The former Secretary of Defence invades Orford Ness in Suffolk to explore the mysterious, formerly top-secret buildings that look, like sinister sentries, over the local population.’

Michael Portillo at Cobra Mist, Still from Hidden History Of Britain (2018), Channel 5: UK.

Yet calling Orford Ness ‘formerly secret’ misses something paradoxical. At the height of the Cold War, at the height of official secrecy, the place was little known to the wider public. Today it is known as a ‘secret’ place with a ‘hidden’ history. Secrecy has become a prominent, and even marketable feature of its identity. Secrecy as brand. Perhaps secrecy is not only the limit of what is publicly known. Might we also consider it, at least in this case, as a mode of public knowledge: a way of understanding in which it is the unknowable that energizes our will to know?