This post is about settings. Settings are one of those criteria that can help to make or break a novel. Some are easy and familiar and some, necessarily, hard and uncomfortable. How do you find a unique setting for your book? Pull at the imagination strings or find somewhere that exists?
Both work, of course, but sometimes finding a real place and using it as a basis can work wonders.
One such is Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast. And it is the result of both nature and man working, more often than not, in disharmony. Let me tell you a little about this fabulous, extraordinary and down right bonkers piece of England.
But first some background.
There are times when even lovers of both town and countryside (me) have to stand back and wonder at the extraordinary impact that man has had on his environment. Of course the biggest impacts are, probably, our cities and towns, absorbing the countryside into their voracious jaws to such an extent that there is little to no evidence that the countryside was ever there. No, what I’m thinking of are the places where you are so clearly still in a wilderness but there’s a twist. And I don’t mean a twist like a large nuclear reactor dumped on the coastline but rather where the weird is absorbed into the already weird that nature has created for herself.
I was reading Alison Mills, via Charli Mills and her article on two Montana Superfund sites. For those of you (non Americans I guess) who don’t know what a Superfund site is, it’s a site in need of a major environmental clean up and long term management programme. Any developed country is going to have polluted some land somewhere and in the past people just let it be; a cost of the benefits of progress. But sometime in the mid twentieth century people began to get mad. You need to clean up, they said. And it fell on Governments to do something about it. The Americans didn’t like that and were rather keen on the idea of ‘the polluter pays’. Planning laws (or the zoning in the US) began to impose clean up requirements, land restoration after mining, that sort of thing.
But it needed a scandal and the unbelievably inappropriately named Love Canal story, whose story broke in the late 1970s, provided it. Read about it; you’ll find it hard to believe, even if you enjoyed Erin Brokovich.
Jimmy Carter’s administration promoted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (which became known as the Superfund Act). It did something very little legislation in Common Law based countries has done and included a retrospective element. That meant that, even though the polluter in the Love Canal case has contractually signed away its liability for the waste disposal and even though it had done nothing illegal by the laws at the time, the polluter was held to be negligent in the way it handled its materials and had to pay up years after the event.
It was really Alison’s pictures of the despoiled Montana countryside that had me reminiscing and wondering about extraordinary settings. You see, a few years back, the Lawyer was doing a history degree and his dissertation was to be on an environment history subject. He chose the environmental history of Orford Ness, a shingle cuspate (sort of sticky-out bit of pebbly coast) on the fringes of Eastern England whose very isolation has given it its unique past and present.
The British Military took it over because of its isolation in 1915. Effectively it is an island with a muddy narrow link at Aldeburgh but mostly accessed by boat from Orford. Back in the 16th Century this was an important port and Orford castle is testament to that. However the shingle grew, the rivers Alde and Ore silted up and the curious isolation began. In 1724 Daniel Defoe commented, ‘Orford was once a good town, but it deccay’d. The sea daily throws up more land to it, as if it was resolved to disown the place, and that it should be a seaport no longer.’
Military organisations love secrets; they are in the DNA. And Orford was secret. Always had been. Apparently it was cursed – a merman, tortured by the locals, had seen to that. Its history, geography and mythology all conspired to let in the Military.
In 1915, with Britain looking towards the German empire and wondering, this area was perfectly placed. The nascent air service (the Royal Flying Corps, that became the RAF in 1918) was based in Suffolk, at Martlesham Heath. Orford Ness was their secret arm; here they experimented with aircraft types, with judging bombing runs, with the way guns could be fired from moving aircraft. Over the period of the 1914-18 war it grew and became an important part of the secret war being fought away for the trenches.
After the peace, the Military were reluctant to give it back. But the need, in the more pacific times of the twenties, dwindled until the growing militarisation in Germany convinced some people to look at ways to protect ourselves. People were conscious of the many new technologies that had a major impact in WW1, especially aircraft. An idea was mooted, of a beam of energy to bring down aircraft. A young scientist, Robert Watson-Watt was given the task of exploring the idea. He soon dismissed it; instead he focused on using a beam to detect enemy aircraft. He was given space at Orford Ness to conduct his early experiments into Radar which played a fundamental part in the defences of Britain during WW2.
During WW2, Orford Ness was, once again, a secret establishment, a place for testing ordnance. Bullets and bombs. Some of the buildings they constructed are easily understood as firing ranges and similar. Some less so.
There was something inevitable therefore when, after WW2 ended the Military hung on to Orford Ness and handed it to the newly formed Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. The papers so far released indicate that the testing carried out there was aimed at delivery systems and detonators of atomic weaponry and no fissile material was involved. Do I believe them? I wonder.
Certainly the type of buildings changed. There are the remnants of ‘Pagodas’ that were designed to allow the explosive forces to blow out the sides without destroying the testing building entirely. There are huge areas still, sixty years on, closed off to the public, ostensibly to prevent injury through unexploded ordnance which we are told still lies deep within the shingle (the early tests were randomly carried out and no one recorded what fell where and what exploded). Is it just ancient bombs or something more insidious and deadly?
Naturally the nature of the testing meant the secrecy, if anything, increased. So when a site was sought for an experimental ‘radio station’, Orford Ness was chosen. ‘Cobra Mist’ is, today, the BBC world service’s broadcasting station but when it was conceived in the 1960s, with the Cold War at its height, it was an American funded facility, apparently purely for research. Really? Why not carry out the research in the US? With the Ness being one of the closest points to the Soviet Union’s empire, isn’t it more likely to be a listening station? Or even a new type of early warning system? Fylingdales , in Yorkshire is the well known UK based early warning station, but it only delivered a four minute warning. Increasing that, even marginally, could be vital in scrambling aircraft and similar. It never worked. It was never commissioned, for still classified reasons.
And there the military ended its involvement. Gradually the Ministry of Defence was ‘encouraged’ to release land back to a wider use. Orford Ness was already unique with its military history but hat was only part of its story.
It also had, in part courtesy of the security of the site, an extraordinary natural history. When somewhere is secret, by definition, few people go there. But the rest of the natural world, if not in conflict, takes advantage of the absence of man. Unique insects, molluscs, plants and lichens abound on the Ness and the National Trust, when they took it over, wanted to preserve and encourage this aspect. They thought about preserving the military structures, but partly because so much is still too dangerous for the public they decided on a managed retreat, allowing the military buildings to decompose back into the landscape. It makes for a weird setting.
Perhaps the best known natural history success, partly on Havergate Island, part of Orford Ness and partly up the Suffolk coast at Minsmere, has been the return of the Avocet. This beautiful wading bird was declared extinct in Britain in the 1840s and no one thought it might return. But a combination of the war time flooding of the coast at Minsmere as part of the sea defences against invasion, and a random bomb test flooding Havergate island, created the conditions for the bird’s return. And so they did, disturbed in their nesting places in Holland and Belgium by the military activity. When nesting birds were first observed it generated much excitement amongst ornithologists. And that excitement spread generally, the birds’ return said to be a symbol of the hope that followed the men returning from war.
A Daily Mail article echoed these sentiments in 1948:
“A group of men are anxiously waiting to hear of an air invasion of Britain. The news will come to them from watchers along the East Anglian coast, who are keeping as alert a look-out as they did in 1940 for the Germans. But this time, instead of looking for aircraft with black markings, they are hoping to see streamlined Recurvirostra avosetta… Unlike the Luftwaffe, these invaders will be most welcome.”
This success lead to the formation of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) as an effective nature protection charity, a model for many that followed. The Avocet is now the RSPB’s symbol, courtesy of this success.
Let us not think the Military’s involvement was all a good thing, though. The Trust warden said the land around the Cobra Mist site had been covered with a herbicide so powerful it still worked after 25 years; probably the notorious Agent Orange developed in the USA for use in Vietnam and containing dioxin.
Orford Ness is occasionally opened to the public. It is a bleak spot, huddled against the North Sea and, basically ugly. But like a lot of things that are classed as ‘ugly’ it has a unique and challenging character and is more than worth a visit. As a (partial) resident and lover of Suffolk, I find its beauty in many ways and places and this is one of them. And as a writer, standing on the Chinese Wall and staring at the alien structures and rolling shingle banks, stories form and swirl in my head, just from viewing this setting. Mystery has seeped into this place where even the lichen works hard to cling on. It’s no Gothic mansion, or overgrown graveyard, nor is it a fog-bound sea port or stygian cave, but, even in daylight it reeks of its secrets, willing the scribe to tease out its stories and uncover the truths hidden by the past.
What about you? Where do you find your settings?