11 May 2011

Orfortress of Solitude

This past March, I was on empty, desolate Orfordness, bewildered, looking at these shards of glass that fell from who knows where, into an inadvertent sculpture. Yes, this blog post is way overdue. Anyway: at that moment, the nerdy pun that makes the title of this post popped into my head, and I laughed at myself. Dorky joke, I thought, and went looking for other things to bewilder me and take photos of.


Orfordness is a spit off the southeast coast of England. A spit, for those of you not in the geographical know, is a tiny peninsula, a long thin geographical toothpick of a peninsula. Orfordness, importantly, is a shingle spit. For those of you not in the geological know, "shingle" is basically pebbles. Orfordness, then, is a tiny little peninsula mostly made of and covered with pebbles. Excitingly, Orfordness is a vegetated shingle spit. And for those of you not in the know, vegetated shingle spits are incredibly rare on our wild planet. And Orfordness is the biggest one ever, at about 2,300 acres.

Having learned this, you will no doubt be surprised to find I wasn't on Orfordness to continue my internationally-renowned geomorphology research. Rather, I was there to do anthropology work with my Documentary and Sensory Media course, on a field trip.

"You said," I can already hear you say, "you said Anthropology is the study of people and cultures and stuff. Why are you on this field trip to this (admittedly very exciting) vegetated shingle spit that no one lives on??"

Because, dear readers, because I have not told you all. Throughout the three major wars of the 20th century, Orfordness was the British military's testing ground and engineering facility. The British army worked on radar there during WWI, and on the atomic bomb during WWII. The Cold War saw more nuclear research, for decades, Orfordness was the hub of Britain's military technologies.

Oh, yes. Locals call the spit "the island." It's not geographically correct, but since local knowledge trumps all, it is correct to call Orfordness "the island." And after the Cold War, the military abandoned the island, taking all their records with them, and leaving just their buildings and rubbish behind. 

 Surprisingly, the National Trust purchased Orfordness. The National Trust is a non-profit organisation that mostly preserves and looks after stately homes and large former aristocratic estate lands. They are very well-known for keeping pretty grounds, lovely for a picnic, and keeping beautiful old houses in their intended condition. Anyone can go to National Trust properties, and if you're a member, it's cheaper or free or something.

They are a preserving organisation, they are the preserving angels.

But the military had left no record of what the buildings on Orfordness were used for, or how. No records of which rooms were offices and which were testing facilities. Why are those holes in the wall? No one really knows.

And the National Trust was faced with a strange problem: how can you preserve something without knowing what it looked like before you got there, what it was supposed to look like, and what it was used for? How many people used it? There are so many questions, and mostly only speculation to fill the gap.

So, the National Trust took a bold move and decided not to preserve it. They would let all the buildings fall apart and decay, because trying to preserve them would be pointless. Orfordness is a tiny city abandoned by people, and the National Trust are mostly just letting nature break it down. One National Trust employee sleeps on the island every so often, but no one lives there.

One of the buildings, Cobra Mist, is doing better than the others, because up until midnight Saturday March 26, Cobra Mist housed a BBC World Service Transmitter. There's a whole staff of engineers who work there everyday, so Cobra Mist is not really decaying yet. The World Service Transmitter was shut down due to cuts, and the switch was flicked, heartbreakingly, the weekend I was there.

The equipment that controls the transmitter is beautiful, old 70s-looking stuff, schematics seemingly drawn straight onto them.

 This is one of my favourite photos from the entire trip.

A coursemate, Lee Gallagher, got a recording of it the evening before shut off.
Lee does lots of sound recording, especially surreptitious stuff around Manchester. He's a lovely guy, but he doesn't have a blog or podcast or website or pretty much any sort of internet presence, so if you're interested in getting more information about Lee and any of his recording, let me know. I'll get you in touch.

Cobra Mist is a giant bunker of a building, up on stilts filled with unused rooms. Some of these rooms have no windows, some have airlocks. Some have inexplicable lists drawn in chalk on the walls. We don't know why.

This room was completely light tight. I had to use a flash to get this shot.

Bits of rubbish line the halls, and there's no real telling how long it's been there.

We stayed overnight on the island, and spent the next day in blistering cold wind, with our cameras and our sound recorders, documenting in sound and image the abandoned sites of Orfordness, the crumbling buildings. The island was inhospitable that day, you truly felt that no one was supposed to be here.

The island is eerie. There's gray pebbles and grey sky, and everywhere you look, everything's collapsing. No one lives here. It's a rare place for England. Once settled, it doesn't seem like much gets abandoned here.

We walked around, trying to record something other than the wind, and something other than ourselves. The thing about Orfordness is... there's only the sound of the wind and the water washing against the shingle. The only other sounds we recorded were sounds we made, throwing rocks against walls, or singing in dark damp concrete bunkers, our voices echoing, arguing with other echoes.

I'm still not clear on how this particular project was anthropological. I think there are a lot of ways that sound can be used in anthropology. But because this place is so empty, so desolate, so left behind by people, recording sounds of it don't appear to be any more meaningful than sounds of wind and water anywhere. And if we're interested in documenting the fact that this place has been abandoned, then we shouldn't be recording sounds that we make. We should just record the silence and waves and wind. I don't know that the echoes of stones thrown at a concrete wall  tell me anything about how people lived here or what this place was for or what it means to anyone now.

Regardless, I'm glad I went on this fieldtrip. Of course, we had a great time there, cooking dinner together and playing pictionary and hangman. We laughed and more than a few of us were completely flummoxed by the idea of recording wind. We had a good time, and we saw something few get to see.

I'm glad I've been to Orfordness. The place is so strange, mostly because you can tell it must have once been full of life. There was a time when Orfordness was the place to be. Hundreds of engineers, blowing things up, testing bombs, maybe blissfully unaware of the effects of radioactive material on human bodies. There must have been a bar, a curry house. It must have been one of the most lively places in Britain. And it wasn't that long ago.

When we were there, though, it was anything but carefree. These buildings are falling apart moment-by-moment, so they're dangerous to walk in. And the National Trust folks told us not to touch or pick up anything on the island. "This is the kind of place where, something might look like it's tar," they said, "We don't know if it's tar." Everything here could be radioactive, tainted with depleted uranium. There's just no telling.

Some things in these buildings look so twisted and tortured, you can't imagine nature alone has done this. But why would the military have done this? And why does no one still know?

Even though this is a National Trust property, they don't let everyone onto these parts of the island. We were there under the auspices of our professor, Rupert Cox, and his friend Louise Wilson, a sound artist, who was commissioned to produce artwork about Orfordness, and she joined our fieldtrip, as an advisor. Her work A Record of Fear is all about the island. Because of them, we had access to the dangerous wilderness of Orfordness.

I don't use that word lightly. Jackrabbits have taken over this island, they hopped madly away every time we stepped in a building.

This place is filled with mystery. Suffused with intrigue. What on earth were they doing? Did this building ever have a roof? We know that in some rooms they were vibrating the bombs, to see how much they could be shaken without spontaneously detonating. Some rooms seemed to be centrifuges. Other rooms had no handles on the outside, so you couldn't accidentally walk into one. The big secrets must have been there.

A de-commissioned nuclear bomb lies in a small museum dedicated to the island's history.

And everywhere, there are remnants of the past to remind you: you really shouldn't be here. You're intruding on the island. No one is supposed to be here.

And the more I think about this lonely island with its falling buildings, pregnant with secrets, the more I think that nerdy joke is a little bit apt. Because of what people did here, people are not supposed to be here now. And people are not here now. It's hard to imagine any one really living on Orfordness these days, with its bleak gray shingle, bleak gray concrete rubble, bleak gray sky and sinister black water. Orfordness today really is a fortress of solitude. Not the safe place of some Cold War-era superhero, whose own reputation as saviour is crumbling every moment. This place is past all that. Rather, it's a fortress that protects its own solitude, to keep its secrets safely held within its own fracturing structures.

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