It was a beautiful day on Saturday so R, E and I decided we would like to go out for the afternoon. We would have liked to go to the beach but at this time of the year the beaches are very busy and the car-parks full so we decided to visit Orford. We hadn’t been there for years and we couldn’t remember having been there in warm weather before. It takes about forty minutes to get to Orford from our house and we first travel south on the A12 towards Ipswich, the county town of Suffolk. We then turn off eastwards and drive past Snape where I took my mother last month.
I always think I am going to get lost and am always surprised when I don’t. I was surprised to find I got to Orford with no trouble at all and I even managed to squeeze the car into the last space in the car park. The castle is very impressive.
Acknowledgements to the English Heritage guide book. The castle was built by King Henry II who reigned from 1154-89 and it took about eight years to build, 1165-73. Though a formidable king, he had almost constant trouble from rebellious barons, his problematical family and his one-time friend, Thomas Becket. The castle was built to proclaim his authority to the barons of East Anglia, especially Hugh Bigod, Earl of Suffolk and to protect the coast from foreign attack. It is a grand domestic residence as well as a defensive structure. The castle has a unique design and amazingly the building accounts for the whole period of its construction still survive. When the castle had been built, a new church, a new street plan and improved port facilities in the surrounding village followed on. Almost as soon as the castle was completed it helped defeat a rebellion by the united forces of Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and their three sons, the French king and Earl Bigod. Orford was to remain an important royal castle for another 150 years and was controlled by the king’s constable. It served as a military stronghold and a centre of local administration. I am fascinated by this period in history. I remember going to see the 1968 film ‘The Lion in Winter’ when it was re-shown in cinemas in the 70’s; a film based on the Broadway play by James Goldman. The film is full of brilliant actors – Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton – and at the time I thought all the men so good looking – a feast for the eyes! Poor old chaps they are now, but then I’m no spring chicken myself!
The keep of the castle survives to its full height and can be seen from afar. It is cylindrical within and polygonal without and has three buttresses.
As you can see from the photos above the castle is very bulky and angular. The top left photo is of the earthworks round the castle. The part of the castle that remains is the keep. Immediately surrounding the keep is the bailey (a courtyard) and round the bailey was a curtain wall. The curtain wall was the last to be built and probably had six projecting towers and a gateway. An outer ditch lay some distance in front of the wall (perhaps the bailey was originally intended to be larger). The deep ditches that can be seen close to the keep nowadays are probably the result of the demolition of the curtain wall and the quarrying of its stone for re-use elsewhere. The last fragment of the curtain wall collapsed in 1841 ‘with a tremendous crash’.
The keep contains two circular halls, one above the other and each hall has its own two storey suite of rooms arranged within the turrets and the thickness of the walls. The hall windows are quite large but the rooms in the turrets have only slit windows. Underneath the lower hall within the sloping plinth is a basement for storage with a well, the water of which was probably rather salty.
Notice the wear on the step up into the alcove. This was the way to the kitchen and you can imagine all the kitchen scullions carrying countless dishes of meat and jugs of wine and beer into the hall over this step.
The Lower Hall has a large fire place.
The kitchen has two small fireplaces and a stone sink which would have been adequate for cooking for the small number of people who were the normal residents of the castle. When there was major feast with many guests there was probably a larger kitchen outside in the bailey and this kitchen would have been used for heating food. If the castle was under attack then this kitchen would have been essential.
The next picture is of something that always fascinated our daughters when they were little.
There had been a short wall between the latrines but this was removed for some unknown reason during the Second World War when the castle was requisitioned by the government and a radar observation post was built on top of the south turret. The latrines are in a garderobe, a cloakroom, and possibly ammonia given off by the latrine may have helped to protect any robes stored there from insect attack.
A selection of passageways. The constable’s chamber is accessed from the Lower Hall and is up a spiral staircase from one of the alcoves and along a passage in the north turret. For some reason we didn’t go up there so no photo. There is another chamber for middle-ranking guests off the Lower Hall. The main doorway to the main stair which fills the south turret and connects all levels of the keep from the basement to the roof is also accessed form the Lower Hall.
Like most stairs in castles, this one rises clockwise, giving a right-handed defender space to wield his sword while hindering an attacker coming from below. We then went up to the chapel and chaplain’s room which is, like the constable’s room, half way up the keep between the Lower Hall and the Upper Hall.
The chaplain’s room is further along the passage. Beyond his room he had his own latrine and a store-cupboard for his clothes and books.
We then went up to the Upper Hall which is now holding the Orford Museum.
This would have been much more richly decorated than the hall below as this was where the most important visitors stayed, even the king himself. The original form of the roof was a high conical or domed construction supported by thirteen projecting stone corbels around the walls. Whoever designed this roof for Henry was highly educated, and by designing it to look like roofs in palaces in Byzantium he was associating the king with the great monarchs of antiquity. The roof rotted and decayed away through the 17th and 18th centuries. An alcove off the Upper Hall leads to another kitchen for heating food prepared elsewhere.
This room could also double as a washroom where visitors could bathe in comfort with water heated by the fire and then afterwards poured down the drain. There is a sleeping chamber intended for grand visitors easily reached from the Upper Hall. It also had its own latrine with two doors to keep odours at bay. In another alcove there are a pair of large cupboards facing each other for the safekeeping of valuables and clothes. There is evidence that there were large doors to these cupboards. Going further up the stairs we found another passageway leading to a lost gallery.
There is also a cistern on this upper level lined with finely dressed stone. Rainwater was collected from the roofs and stored in this cistern and then distributed to other rooms through a system of pipes.
We then went onto the roof where there is a bakery and also the reinforced concrete platform, erected during the Second World War, which was originally used as a gun platform but then adapted as a radar observation post. The flat roof is modern with the turrets rising still higher. The medieval conical roof would have kept below the level of the surrounding parapet, both now destroyed. The tops of the turrets would have served as fighting platforms and watchtowers and were originally reached by ladders.
Orford Ness is a long shingle spit now owned by the National Trust. For many years the Ness was owned by the Ministry of Defence who began work there during the First World War finding out how to use an aeroplane as a weapon. After WW1 it became a ballistics testing facility and work was done using radio beacons resulting in the birth of the radar. Ballistics testing continued during WW2 and the Ness was used to improve aircraft and munitions design. After the war lethality and vulnerability trials continued and work on aerodynamics of ammunition. Ballistics testing continued and extended to include rockets with jets fired from almost no altitude into King’s Marsh. Later Orford Ness hosted one of its largest secrets – the huge Cobra Mist radar project. At the height of the Cold War the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment used the Ness for development work on the atomic bomb. This continued all through the 1960’s and the ominous, half-buried concrete structures known as ‘pagodas’ were built to contain these most lethal of weapons. From the 1970’s the Ness was home to RAF Explosive Ordnance Disposal and large quantities of munitions were destroyed here which was often very noisy. The last service personnel left in 1987 and the Ness remained officially closed to the public with occasional trials of new equipment. The MoD sold the Ness to the National Trust in 1993. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the site and buildings were re-used for the Orfordness Transmitting Station. The powerful medium wave radio station was originally owned and run by the Foreign Office, then by the BBC and then, after privatization in the 1990’s by a series of private companies. It is best known for transmitting the BBC World Service in English round the clock to continental Europe from September 1982 until March 2011. It has been disused since May 2012. Access is only available by the National Trust ferry from Orford Quay on designated open days. The importance of the landscape of the spit and the wildlife it supports had become apparent by the time the National Trust took over the Ness. It cares for the internationally rare and extremely fragile coastal vegetated shingle as well as the historically important military buildings. Acknowledgements to the National Trust web page on Orford Ness for this information. We then left the castle and walked through the village to the Quay passing by lots of attractive cottages on the way. We spent an enjoyable hour at the Quay watching people, boats, dogs and seagulls. We bought fish and chips for our tea on the way home, so no cooking for me either – hooray!