THE TERMINAL BEACH
Above him, along the crests of the dunes, the tall palms leaned into the dim air like the symbols of a cryptic alphabet. The landscape of the island was covered by strange ciphers.
- J.G. Ballard, "The terminal beach"
Truth be told, I have never been to Orford Ness in my home county of Suffolk. I have seen its weird pagodas, its forbidding concrete walls, and its traces of rusting garbage from a distance, and have been dimly aware of its classified past as a site for nuclear experiments and dive-bomb tests. But having read Ballard's "The terminal beach," a short story about a man who sets up home on an island formerly used for atomic testing, I feel like I've been. Its mudflats and lagoons and reed-beds out-Ballard Ballard himself.
It was at Orford Ness, a shingle spit near to Dunwich Heath and part of Suffolk's sinister coastline, that the Mark 1 "Blue Danube" atom bomb - Britain's first operational nuclear weapon - was developed. Tons of high explosive were tested at the site after the government decided in 1947 that Britain should have an atom bomb.
TESTING THE BLUE DANUBE ATOM BOMB (N.B. THIS WAS NOT TAKEN AT ORFORD)
Planes left from Farnborough in Hampshire and flew over to Ipswich, where they let go of the weapon and dropped it over the Ness. The weapon would be tracked via radar from the Ness (radar had been developed in Orford in the 1930s) to test their stability.
The island was sold by the MOD to the National Trust in the late 1980s, and is preserved with (as one interviewee puts it) "a philosophy of decay". These wonderful films show this mass of saltmarshy secrets as the very focus of Britain's Cold War history.