Sunday, October 07, 2007


The ruins of Carthage, of the great city of Jerusalem, or of ancient Rome, are not at all wonderful to me ; the ruins of Nineveh, which are so entirely sunk as that it is doubtful where the city stood ; the ruins of Babylon or the great Persepolis, and many capital cities, which time and the change of monarchies have overthrown ; these, I say, are not at all wonderful, because being the capitals of great and flourishing kingdoms, where those kingdoms were overthrown, the capital cities necessarily fell with them ; but for a private town, a sea-port and a town of commerce, to decay as it were of itself (for we never read of Dunwich being plundered or ruined by any disaster, at least not of late years) ; this I must confess seems owing to nothing but to the fate of things, by which we see that towns, kings, countries, families and persons have all their elevation, their medium, their declination and even the destruction in the womb of time and the course of nature.

- Daniel Defoe, Tour through the eastern counties

The North Sea has slowly devoured the coast of Suffolk for centuries, and the village of Dunwich (once a major trading town) is emblematic of the erosion which still eats away at it. In the 13th and 14th centuries, two major storms ravaged much of Dunwich, and for the past five hundred years a severe longshore drift has washed most of it away. There is still a Franciscan priory, and a former hospital for lepers, but otherwise there is little to see in Dunwich. Visitors come for precisely this reason : to see nothing.

There were once 18 churches in Dunwich. All Saints Church, pictured above in 1906 as the last of its ruins fell into the sea, was the last to go. On a quiet day you can still hear the church bells out at sea (or so they say), and sometimes, as the cliffs collapse, bones from long-dead villagers are found on the beach. The slow death of Dunwich continues today - the coastal path I walked along yesterday will not be there next year. Dunwich's decay is its life.

Such desolation is not unique to Dunwich. The central Suffolk coast is bleak and blasted, its uncanny aura a product of being a wartime base for military research and nuclear testing. When one walks the coastal paths and the heathlands and the forest tracks of Orford Ness or Minsmere or Rendlesham, one commonly finds abandoned houses, burned-out vehicles and evasive men in buggies talking into CB radios. Nothing, one suspects, is quite as it seems.


One night, shortly after Christmas in December 1980, two officers from the American air base at RAF Woodbridge claimed they had seen an unidentified space craft land. They saw a brilliant white light hovering a few feet above the ground, through the trees in Rendlesham Forest. The officers drove closer to find the large white light moving along the forest, as if mirroring their movement. At first they thought it was a military plane which had lost its way. The officers contacted Heathrow Airport, who had earlier located an object above the Woodbridge base which had then disappeared from their radar.

But as the officers approached the craft, they found that it was not an airplane, and that it had not crashed. The object, whatever it was, had landed in a clearing and was transmitting an array of flickering coloured lights, some red, some yellow, some green. "There was also a sense of slowness," said Staff Sergeant Jim Penniston afterwards, "like time itself was an effort."

The next night, a similar landing was reported. This time Deputy Base Commander Lt Col Halt was at the scene. Sceptical at first, Halt took radiation readings. The readings were higher than normal. There were marks on several tree trunks nearby which suggested the bark had been scorched by something. Halt also reported seeing a pulsating red light in the air, from which "molten metal" dripped.

The Rendlesham Forest Incident quickly became the cause celebre among the UFO community. The US military corroborated the story, but others were more sceptical. The bright white light, they said, was Orford Ness lighthouse (ps, watch the video in this link - it is spooooky), which is visible from Rendlesham Forest and which appears to hover only a few feet above the ground. If the officers had seen a space craft, they would have seen two lights : the lighthouse and that of the craft. But Penniston and his colleague only saw one.

Subsequent tests also suggested that Lt Con Halt's radiation readings were not, in fact, abnormal ; and the coloured lights which Penniston saw were actually the result of an "exceptionally brilliant meteor" which had seared through the night sky early on Boxing Day morning.


Perhaps some of Suffolk's creepiness is derived from its position during the Second World and Cold Wars. In the 1930s, the "half wilderness, half military junkyard" of Orford Ness was home to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, where the firing mechanisms for nuclear weapons were developed. Orford and its surrounding area still carries the air of calculated violence, bestowed upon it by testing stations during the twentieth century.

In 1936, the old stately pile of Bawdsey Manor was sold to the Air Ministry for research into radio direction finding. Headed by Sir Robert Watson Watt and staffed mainly by women, it was here that the first "Chain Home" radar station was developed. In the lead up to war, Bawdsey's two radar transmitters and a third "buried reserve" tested Britain's pre-war paranoias to their limits.

As the nearest English county to the continent, Suffolk's coast was vulnerable to attack and after the Battle of Dunkirk in May and June 1940, many other towns from King's Lynn to Southend were used for military testing and experimentation. In August 1940, Ronald Ashford was a Local Defence Volunteer near Shingle Street, a godforsaken strip of parched beach which looked out to occupied Europe across the grey, soupy North Sea. Shingle Street is just south of Orford Ness and what little there was of village life had been evacuated in late June to create a coastal defence area.

Following intelligence reports of enemy troop build-up in France and Belgium, the LDVs, a couple of miles north in Aldeburgh, had been issued with ammunition and were prepared for attack. One night, Ronald Ashford witnessed something strange :

Not long after we were issued with rifles, and before we had been properly instructed in their use, a red alert was declared along the East Suffolk coast and we found ourselves dug in behind a long brick wall facing the Aldeburgh marshes. We had knocked out firing slits at intervals of a few feet. It was a clear dark evening, about 9.00pm, when the heavens appeared to open up south of Orford Lighthouse, in the Shingle Street area. We heard a tremendous amount of gunfire and explosions. The night sky was lit up with a red glow. Sporadic gunfire went on for several hours. We received word that a German landing had taken place. This was later confirmed by eye-witness accounts of a shoreline littered with burned bodies.

The Germans, targeting the radar station at Bawdsey Manor, had apparently attempted an invasion, but had been thwarted by an audacious British counter-attack : setting the North Sea on fire. The sea bed had been laid with piping full of flammable liquid.

Ashford claims that he has collected other eyewitness accounts which confirm his story, including the sighting from a Mr Burrows of British soldiers loading dead bodies onto a lorry. Ashford states that the German flotilla was picked up by radar, and that locals had seen the dead soldiers. Indeed, there are articles from late 1940 which confirm that four bodies were washed up on the beach. But these men had been dead for some months, and had probably died at sea.

In 1992, W.G. Sebald set off on a walking tour of Suffolk, which he described in his book The rings of Saturn. He writes :

I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.

The fact that Ronald Ashford's story, like that of Rendlesham UFO, has been widely discredited seems rather insignificant, for in Suffolk truth really does have the structure of a strange and unsettling fiction. The threatening landscape and paralysing horror that Sebald describes creates these fictions, so that the more they are disproved, the more real they become.


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