I’d attempted to visit Orfordness lighthouse twice before, the first time missing the last boat by about 15 minutes and the second time turning up on a Sunday or Monday when the boat doesn’t run (bad planning on my part there). So, it had to be third time lucky, surely!
With more forward planning this time, we arrived in time for the first boat of the day and happily received the tickets from the National Trust office at Orford. It’s not the cheapest boat trip I’ve ever been on, but you do get maps and a welcome from the National Trust staff on the (roughly) 10 mile long shingle spit that is Orford Ness. They informed us that, although it does say it on the map we’d received, it was very unlikely that we’d step on some unexploded ordnance. The spit was used by the Ministry of Defence during both the First and Second World War as well as the Cold War for secret testing and was also a test site for early developments in radar. There are a number of the old atomic testing buildings still standing on Orford Ness. Although the general outline of what went on there in the past is known, there is still a lot that remains secret. Visiting it on a quiet, calm day as we did, you can’t imagine all of this going on there.
It is also an important conservation area and there is a trail, as defined by the National Trust, that provides the best route if that is your priority. We had plans for the afternoon, so decided to head straight for the lighthouse. It’s possible to see the lighthouse from Orford itself, but it’s actually on the other side of the spit, so it’s a bit of a stroll – a nice one though.
It was back in 2013 that I first heard of the problems with Orfordness lighthouse. Early reports on this said that the lighthouse had been discontinued by Trinity House with the optic removed as the risk of it being washed away was imminent. Another story shortly afterwards revealed that it wouldn’t happen quite as suddenly as the original story suggested and that it had a few years remaining yet (it turns out that an earlier lower lighthouse on Orford Ness was actually washed away in 1730). So, it came as a bit of a surprise to see a vehicle drive past us with ‘Trinity House’ on the side. As we continued our walk, we noticed the vehicle stopped at the lighthouse. I’d received news earlier in the summer that the lighthouse was to be open to the public for three days, none of which I was able to make. So, the idea that someone would be at the lighthouse and might let us get inside was unexpected and a quite exciting. We stopped off at the old Bomb Ballistics building on the way to the lighthouse, which contained some information about what used to take place there. It showed some of the testing exercises they carried out with bombs being dropped into the sea just off of the coast there, scarily close to the lighthouse in my opinion.
As we set off for the final stretch towards the lighthouse we noticed that the door to the main tower was open and, as we approached we could hear voices coming from inside. It turned out that Nicholas Gold, the owner of the lighthouse, was there that day showing people around and, even better, he was happy for us to have a walk up the tower. Apparently, he’d heard about the risk to the lighthouse and contacted Trinity House to ask if they could come to some sort of deal over ownership of the buildings and tower. Fortunately they could (I assume Trinity House were pleased to get rid of it, as it no longer served a purpose for them) and he set up the Orfordness Lighthouse Trust to allow the local community to have a say over how the lighthouse was maintained in the future. The Trust aims to preserve the tower for as long as possible and some stabilisation work has already been carried out to protect the lighthouse.
So, in we went and met the owner on our way up. We made it all the way to the lamp room, which offered some great views of the surrounding area and we could look down and see from above the distance between the sea and the lighthouse. It’s an interesting lighthouse with some unusual platforms on the way up unlike any I’ve seen before. Just inside the entrance there is some information about the lighthouse and the work that has already been done to try to preserve it. We left a donation and made our way back outside where the owner allowed us to look inside the interestingly-shaped building that had previously been used to store the oil for the lighthouse. Such a great smell inside that building! There was also the other building, which would have provided living quarters for the keepers. All in all, a fantastic visit and perfect timing as, on our way back, the owner drove past us and offered us a ride back to the boat on the back of the vehicle. We said “no, thank you” at the time, but realised with hindsight that it could have been quite fun – the three of us bouncing about on the back! So, he’d obviously not stayed there much longer after we’d left. Perfect timing!
It was a great few hours spent in a unique place. Whether or not the lighthouse is open, it’s definitely worth a visit, particularly to see the beautiful lighthouse tower with it’s perfect stripes before it ceases to be a part of the skyline there. I just hope the Trust are able to preserve it for many years to come.
We have one more trip lined up this coming weekend, which I will report on soon. There’s nothing, as yet, following that, but these things can change in the space of a week if we suddenly decide we want to do something! 🙂