Stuart Jeffries

What really went on at Britain’s Bikini Atoll?

Stuart Jeffries takes the ferry to Orford Ness, a strange shingle spit on the Suffolk coast, where art mingles with death

Britain’s Bikini Atoll: the exact diabolical nature of the military experiments that took place at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Orford Ness might never be clear. Commissioned and produced by Artangel. Presented in partnership with the National Trust. Photograph: Johny Pitts

Nearly a century ago, some Chinese water deer swam the River Ore to Orford Ness. They had escaped from the ornamental deer park at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and, perhaps through ancestral homing instinct, headed as far east as possible without falling into the North Sea. They climbed unsteadily on to this strange shingle spit at the end of England and made it home, along with the gulls, thistles, wild poppies and the brown hares who, reportedly, are too burly to be airlifted by the Ness’s marsh harriers and barn owls.

The pioneering deers’ descendants have borne witness since to many faces of human folly. From the first world war to the end of the Cold War, the Ness was home to experiments with airborne weaponry, radar and atom bombs. What Nevada and Bikini Atoll were to the Americans, Orford Ness was to Britain. In the 1950s newspapers and locals were told misleading stories that the scientific work done here had merely civil purpose, namely to aid merchant vessels so that they didn’t run aground on the Ness.

Today I am following in the little deers’ hoof-steps. I’m taking the ferry to the Ness to experience an art project called Afterness. It consists of a walking tour through the ruins of 20th-century military experiments, passing site-specific sculptures and installations, all the while accompanied by poetry and field recordings broadcast into visitors’ headsets.

When in the 1990s W.G. Sebald wrote Rings of Saturn, his unreliable memoir of walking the lugubrious East Anglian coast, he imagined himself on the Ness ‘amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its future extinction by some future catastrophe’. He supposed its abandoned military buildings, whose reinforced roofs were designed to protect against misfiring bombs exploding, resembled pagodas from a dead civilisation, Ozymandian remnants in Suffolk.

Legends of what may or may not have happened here radiated inland like fall-out.

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