Skylarks, and Orford Ness

Arriving on Orford Ness is like entering another sensibility, or like encountering a parallel universe that turns out to be one you’ve always longed to inhabit. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere so strange, and so hauntingly beautiful.

The three-minute boat trip from Orford harbour across to the Ness isn’t long enough to adjust to the differences, even if you knew in advance what they would be. But as you begin walking in the otherworldly quiet you hear larks all around you, rising from the marshy ground with utter confidence as if they know they are the most celebrated bird in literature. It isn’t every bird that can boast both Shakespearean and Keatsian connections, and it isn’t every bird that sings as larks do with such a piercingly sweet sound.

The ten-mile-long shingle spit of land that is Orford Ness has been a nature reserve since 1993, when the National Trust acquired it.  One of its greatest joys for me is that for much of the year you can visit the Ness only once a week (on Saturdays) because of the many nesting birds that need protection – little terns, ringed plovers, redshanks, lapwings, and of course, larks. The Trust has to manage a delicate balance between protecting the fragile habitats and wildlife and giving access to visitors, and it does that through carefully managed restrictions. And don’t you love the idea of somewhere that you can’t get to easily, or often?

Some, perhaps many, visitors are there because of the Ness’s strange military history. It was a secret weapons testing site first acquired by the War Department in 1913, and heavily used during the 1930s and during World War II, and the now mostly derelict military buildings certainly add to the strange otherness of the place.

But for me it’s the isolation that gives the Ness its appeal. That, and the larks.

We first went there this year, at the beginning of May, and we plan to return at the end of July. I don’t think the second trail will be open by then but we’ll be happy to walk the Red Trail again and stare in an abstracted way at the muddy lagoons and the shingle plants. To get right across to the famous lighthouse this time (originally built in 1792 and still in use). And just to sit for longer in the midst of all that wild peaceful beauty.

David Watson – one of the co-owners of the glorious Crown & Castle hotel in Orford itself – is a brilliant photographer, and he’s given me permission to use this photograph.

You can see other samples of David’s work here. And if you want to find out more about the Ness here’s a link to the National Trust’s website page about it.

6 Responses to “Skylarks, and Orford Ness”

  1. Frances Thomas Says:

    I agree – it’s a magical and mysterious part of the world.

  2. admin Says:

    So glad to hear you love it too, Frances. I do wonder how many of my friends secretly think that my passion for isolated wild places is a bit, um, weird. But it all seems so nourishing & restorative to your soul, it’s as though you can breathe properly again when you’re there.

  3. Lucille Says:

    Have I asked you before about whether the Butley Orford Oysterage is still there? It’s lodged in my subconscious. Love the bit the larks.

  4. admin Says:

    Yes indeed, it’s still there – although their shop has moved down to the quay, and I don’t know if the restaurant/tea shop is as good as it used to be (I mean I truly don’t know; we didn’t go in and didn’t hear any comments about it). But the alternative smokery – you know, the lovely old guy who smokes food to within an inch of its life and taste – still has his shack tucked in behind the Oysterage.

  5. Peter Caton Says:

    Orford Ness is indeed a wonderful place. I visited a couple of weeks ago as part of my walk along the Suffolk coast about which I am writing a book.

    Would it be OK to quote the first paragraph of your blog in my book – attributed to you of course.

  6. admin Says:

    Of course, I’d be delighted. (Sorry for the delay in replying: I’ve been out of email contact.)

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