Top Shed Residency blog 7 (Friday): Orford Ness

Orford Ness © M Herring 2016
Orford Ness © M Herring 2016

Today was the last full day of my residency. I went to Orford Ness (I tried to go there earlier in my residency, but all the boat trips were full up). Orford Ness is a large shingle spit joined to the coast south of Aldeburgh in Suffolk and separated from the mainland for most of its length by the river Ore/Alde (it is rather like a bigger version of Blakeney Point, which I visited on Monday). Orford Ness is a mysterious place which was home, for eighty years, to a top secret military research establishment. Military activity ceased in the 1980s and it was sold to the National Trust in the 1990s. It was used by the military, among other things, for testing bomb aiming methods and is still littered with unexploded ordinance. The MOD have cleared paths for visitors to follow, and you stick to these, or risk getting blown up.

I first heard about Orford Ness several years ago through a BBC radio programme by Paul Evans and had wanted to visit ever since. Evans’s programme, with its blending of documentary and poetry, perfectly captures the strange atmosphere of Orford Ness. During my residency, I have been re-reading W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which also describes a visit to the Ness. Both Evans and Sebald experienced a sense of unease and disquiet visiting Orford Ness. Sebald describes visiting on a day that was, “dull and oppressive”, and feeling, “at the same time both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. I had not a single thought in my head”. Evans, if I remember rightly, spent the night on the Ness and was spooked by a hare. Sebald was also, “frightened almost to death” by one which had, “a curiously human expression on its face that was rigid with terror and strangely divided”. I saw a hare too, one which, in the distance, shifted from being a coypu to a mutjac deer to a dog before I guessed it was a hare and got my binoculars fixed on it to confirm the identification. It was too distant to see if it had a human-like face, but it still a disturbingly indeterminate presence. Even the way it moved across the shingle desert – forwards, stop, back, stop, forwards again – was oddly indeterminate. It vanished from time to time in the yellow grass and then seemed to reappear at a spot where it was previously, as if the pocket of time it inhabited had been cut up and spliced together in the wrong order.

To get to Orford Ness, you have to take a small boat the short distance from Orford. Walking down from Aldeburgh, where it joins the mainland, is forbidden, though there is no physical barrier to stop you, only a scary sign. The day I visited was hot and sunny. The part of the Ness closest to the land consists of marshland – I saw lots of little egrets and lapwings – crossed by a tarmac road. A stoat edged round me like I was a chugger it wanted to avoid (but with little more concern than this), as I ate my sandwich sat outside the information building. The road then crosses a tidal creek with mudflats either side, which divides the Ness lengthways. The seaward part of the Ness is a large flat shingle desert. I say flat, but it is actually gently ridged, a bit like land bearing traces of ridge-and-furrow farming. The whole site, especially the shingle part, is dotted with military structures. A large radar station bearing the codename Cobra Mist is to the north – the masts there now transmit the BBC World Service, but it was once the world’s most powerful radar station. A series of bunkers and some strange concrete structures nicknamed The Pagodas, which occupy the shingle to the south, used to house experiments connected to Britain’s early nuclear weapons programme. The visitor path takes in a structure known as the Bomb Ballistic Building, which resembles an airfield control tower, the lighthouse and the closest of the nuclear weapons bunkers.

Orford Ness, exposed and on the North Sea coast, is notorious for biting east winds and I bet that being there in the middle of winter on a grey stormy day is some lugubrious experience, with the wind moaning through the twisted steelwork of derelict buildings and banging sheets of corrugated iron. On a hot, sunny day, with the sky a lapis blue, it has a different atmosphere that is harder to define. Sitting outside the bunker, I tried to get to grips with what I felt about the place. I was prepared for it being eerie and desolate and all the other adjectives. I had a headache and felt a little like Sebald in struggling to marshal any particular thoughts. The lack of shade makes it a difficult place to spend much time on a hot day. The light and heat are radiated back by the shingle and start to tire your eyes (I had no sunglasses) and head. A heat haze made distant objects shimmer. However, the main feeling I got was of a kind of mineral stillness. Everything seemed made of the same stuff and fixed in eternity. Having to walk a pre-determined circuit (with other people all doing the same) increases the sense of fixity and oddness, like you are a bunch of marionettes walking round a prison exercise yard which is also, with the logic of a dream, a desert with strange toy-like buildings set at the corners of the circuit. It reminded me of the stiffness of certain Balthus paintings.

Dried teazel plants poke up from cracks in the tarmac in perfect imitation of iron fixtures rusted into shapes that obscure their original purpose. Tiny scarlet pimpernel flowers resemble flakes of dull red paint on the crazed road surface. Ragwort smells sharply of radish – if anything could survive a nuclear holocaust, I’d bet on it being ragwort. It seems to embody toxic waste-ground. Yellow horned poppy is just as weird as at Blakeney Point. “Do not touch any suspicious objects”, the sign says. Does that include yellow horned poppy? The greenest vegetation is within the roofless bunker, protected from the wind.

Everything tends to nothing. Sitting outside the bunker I tried to note down a few thoughts and came up with the phrase, “nothingness that hums with energy”. It’s not a bad ideal to aim for in art, I think to myself. There is an energy about Orford Ness, that isn’t immediately apparent, but which is somehow behind everything. The more nothing there is, the more it hums with energy. Looking out across the shingle into the heat haze, solid objects such as the lighthouse and Bomb Ballistic Building seem as if they could suddenly disappear (and reappear somewhere else – position being relative on a featureless surface). Everywhere what you notice are alignments: two concrete cubes on the shingle line up at right angles to the horizon; a rusted piece of metal roadway lines up with a distant shed, again at right angles to the horizon; the lighthouse and nautical marker (another tower) exchange charge like two electrodes. It as if nothing exists until it is in alignment with something else. As I point my camera about, I realise that what things are tending towards are the cross hairs of a gun sight or bomb aimer’s sight. Horizontals and verticals constantly lining up and moving apart, as if the land is taking aim.

On a sunny, calm day the energy is all potential, stored for when the storm winds rip across the plain.

I started to fear that my headache would get worse and I’d not be fit to drive back to Norfolk, so I headed back to the jetty, feeling like I was betraying myself a bit. I was back on the Orford side by two o’clock and glad of my flask of tea. I’d like to go back to Orford Ness and do some work there. It’s easy to feel like you know what you are going to somewhere like that to experience and then trot out the clichés, but harder to make sense of it in its own terms. Did I experience what I expected and what others experienced? I don’t know.


Top Shed residency blog 5 (Tuesday)

Today I went to Blakeney Point, on the north Norfolk coast. Blakeney point is a shingle spit several miles long extending into the sea, but parallel with the land. Between the point and the land is the river Glaven. The site includes salt marshes, sand dunes and sandy beaches, as well as the shingle. It is known as a breeding site for seals and terns. I walked up the spit from Cley beach, at the point where the spit breaks away from the land.

I end up wondering why places like this appeal so much. Places that are austere and stripped back. It’s like a kind of obsession, that probably says something about us. Part of the draw is the wildlife – grey and common seals frolicking a few metres off the shore; sandwich terns dive bombing for fish – but part of it is also a fascination with death, like the fascination we feel when we encounter a human skeleton in a museum. It is us, but at the same time radically not us. Bones are hard and cold, we are soft and warm. Bones speak of absence; of flesh and life. Hard landscapes are the same. They are natural, like us, and sustain life. On the other hand, you face something elemental that has nothing to do with human life. The forces that sifted and piled up millions of tons of shingle and that made a series of beautifully sculpted hollows and channels in the sand (caused by receding tide water) are not human forces. Shingle spits, like deserts, do not readily support human life. All comfort is stripped away in a place like this. What frightens us in small doses is enjoyable. To be stuck in a landscape like this which stretched away ad infinitum would be horrifying – would be death. Billions of stones, smooth and hard as carpal bones, all of them sculpted by inhuman forces, are horrifying. Luckily the car park is only a couple of miles trudge away.

It began to rain horizontally from the west as I made my way up the spit. It’s hard work walking on the shingle, so you have to walk right beside the surf, as close as you can without getting your feet wet, where there is some sand which is wet and firm enough to walk on. (There are also patches of really fine shingle, like potting grit. When this is wet it seems like you sink into it even more. So walking on the spit means a constant adjustment higher or lower up the slope in order to find the firmest ground and avoid incoming waves). Out to sea, two enormous wind farms are visible. Turbines stand in grid formation and turn in unison, like some sort of mad mass gymnastics exercise, such as those filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for the National Socialists in Germany. Sometimes the sun catches one farm but the other is in the cloud shadow, so you get a kind of strange dualism: white turbines versus grey ones. Behind them, rain showers trundle across the horizon like pieces of massive, unwieldy stage scenery. Curtains of rain like baleen. Before them the sky above the horizon is inky green; behind them everything is smudged into a grey oblivion.

When the rain shower was overhead I had the feeling of walking underneath a vast motorway flyover. A roaring sound, which turned out to be the wind in my raincoat hood, echoed like the hollow muffled noise of traffic you get under motorway bridges. A band of dark cloud arched above me and the shingle sank into the dead greyness of concrete. My shorts were soaked on the front, but more or less dry behind, like the way tree trunks get moss on one side only. The raindrops stung like small rods of ice. A family of four who were walking ahead of me turned back, presumably disturbed that their clothes were only wet on one side and desiring to get their backsides wet as well. Distance plays tricks with you in places like this. Once the family had gone, I kept thinking the thistles growing at the edge of the dunes were people. Looking back, it seemed I had walked no distance at all. (Later on in the day, I’m pretty sure I saw a middle aged lady in the nud, getting changed without bothering to wrap herself in a towel and relying on sheer distance to hide her. I was forced to pee likewise with no cover and hope that nobody could tell what I was doing because of the distance, so I can’t criticise. It is impossible to know what people far away can see: things seem either closer or further away than they really are).

At the end of the headland the shingle gives way to sand. Fewer people make it to the far end, so I was granted a brief period of that solitude you get on remote Hebridean beaches. Flocks of terns were engaged in a noisy feeding frenzy just beside a sand bar which extended from the beach. Sandwich terns in late summer lose the front part of their black caps, making them look like they are wearing some sort of weird tonsure, like they are all in some cult, or organised crime gang. I gave a baby seal a wide berth. I cut inland into the centre of the headland. A surreal hobbit landscape of grassy dunes and small wooden research huts. Purple carpets of sea rock-lavender. By now, the late afternoon sun was out, bathing everything in its uncanny light. Someone had collected dozens of washed up and abandoned shoes, of all kinds and in all states of decay, and arranged them on a couple of pallets in one of the dune hollows. A surprising number of them were in pairs. Even before I came across this sight, with its eerie resonances, I started to feel a sinister side to the place. Perhaps my failed attempt to reach Orford Ness, with its abandoned military installations, was influencing me. The flat bottomed hollows in the dunes would be excellent places to hide out, or hide something. The sandy, desert-like landscape reminded me of the Jordan valley just north of the Dead Sea. Perhaps the rough hardcore road leads to some secret military site. Better watch your step for mines.

Surreal places require surreal plants. You can’t get much more peculiar than yellow horned poppy, with its oversized finger-like seed pods. Various fleshy-leaved or prickly plants I don’t know how to identify. Sea holly is from another planet.

Walking back down the spit, I was able to take my shoes off and paddle, because the tide was further out and revealed more of the sand. I gradually descended back into the world of the living.

Top Shed residency blog 4 (Saturday)


I have spent the past few days at Top Shed. I tired myself out with my trip to Suffolk, so it took me a couple of days to recover. I have made a number of woodcuts using MDF and a Dremel to cut them. Some of them reproduce my handwriting and texts from the cards I brought. Others reproduce sketches I took from train windows. I have hundreds of these and always struggled to do anything with them, but I discovered they transfer well to woodcut. Most of the woodcuts are of the very simplest kind, where the lines are carved out of the board and are left white in the print. I did one ‘proper’ print (with the lines in relief), but nearly choked on all the MDF dust.

Today I started on some photographs in the landscape, of me walking away from the camera. I just set up the camera and set the self-timer and walked away from the camera. I don’t know if they are an interesting idea. I see them as anti-selfies (in that it is my back I have photographed), and as a kind of refusal (walking away). Ideas of pilgrimage and ‘being in the world’ in a Heideggarean sense might come into it. I could see them working as a series with the right setting.

Top Shed residency blog 3 (Wednesday)


I took a trip down into Suffolk today. I wanted to visit Aldeburgh, because of the Benjamin Britten connection – I expected it to be a bit poshified, because of the festival and all that, but I was quite taken aback at how poshified it was. It’s a bit like a cross between Chiswick and Portmeirion. I expect the inhabitants are being raised for meat in some bizarre sinister project based in Snape Maltings (what does go on in there, it’s far too big to be a concert hall?) I sat in a cafe with early renaissance paintings on the walls, opposite a guy with Benjamin Britten-style wavy hair and a highly refined manner (was he a clone of Benjamin Britten, or just a Radio 3 presenter?) and munched on Aldeburgh’s answer to a bacon sandwich (think: sculptural arrangement of something crispy and honeycombed and too thick to eat properly, with something that looked suspiciously like ordinary bacon). I bought a large book about Jeff Wall in a second-hand bookshop, the only shop apart from Co-op that didn’t look like it was flown in specially from some eye-wateringly expensive part of London. Or that wasn’t an art gallery. Wandering round the place, I tried not to see any more clones of Benjamin Britten. Then I went to Orford and failed to get on one of the boat trips to Orford Ness.

I headed to Staverton Park, a short distance from Orford. I read about this place in Oliver Rackham’s book Woodlands. It is an area of ancient woodland (previously wood pasture) with many large ancient pollarded oak trees, in various states of life and decomposition. For some unknown reason, hollies have grown up in rings around the oaks, not in the open spaces between them, but in their shade. In part of the wood, known as the Thicks, the hollies have taken over entirely, shading and killing many of the oaks. According to Rackham, they are some of the largest holly trees in the UK. Rackham records several of his students’ theories to explain the odd association of holly and oak, including that the hollies are actually older than the oaks and existed originally as shrubs which protected the oak seedlings from browsing, allowing them to grow to full size before being overtaken and killed by the hollies when a lull in browsing removed the check on the size of the hollies. Rackham estimates that it took a hundred years for the hollies to outgrow the oaks and a further hundred for the dead oaks to rot to their current state, so the browsing lull must date from the eighteenth century.

Whatever the reasons, it is certainly a strange place. The oaks resemble stout bottles, or barrels and are fantastically gnarled. Some of the dead ones are reduced to shells that are almost paper thin. The hollies, much thinner and with smooth silvery bark, cling to and writhe around the oaks in what seem like macabre couplings which are in part sexual, in part protective and in part predatory. Where the two types of wood touch, the hollies have formed large round tumorous growths, as if the trees’ own wood, appalled at the unnatural coupling being attempted, has recoiled and grown outwards. Alternatively, the growths resemble the mouth parts of gigantic caterpillars, or mantises, as if the hollies are devouring the oaks. From another point of view, the hollies resemble nurses encircling and protecting dying patients, propping up wizened and atrophied limbs with supple young strength. (I was reminded of scenes from Derek Jarman’s film of Britten’s War Requiem, with the old disabled soldier being wheeled about by a young nurse – I had War Requiem on loop in the car, which probably didn’t improve my state of mind). It’s a fascinating notion that the hollies might be older than the gnarly oaks, like they are some sort of ageless vampiric creatures. The smooth silver bark of the hollies resembles skin covering taught muscles. (Maybe Tilda Swinton was infecting my mind – without checking, I think she was the nurse in Derek Jarman’s film and starred in Orlando, which is about a character who outlives several generations of people without ageing). I took a lot of photos of the trees and made a few sketches in my sketchbook.

In the evening, I went to Thorpeness and walked along the shingle beach as far as the nuclear power station at Sizewell. It was a beautiful evening, the low sun catching the white foam of the breaking waves.

Top Shed residency blog 2 (Tuesday)

Mostly just settling in and exploring. The first thing I did was to lay out on the floor a set of cards I brought with me, and on which I wrote words and short phrases from my notebooks and which I’m playing with. I hope to use them as the basis of some of the text paintings I’m doing. Their origins are in notes taken from bus and train windows of landscape. Some of them are succinct haiku-like observations, but stupider than haiku – I kind of want them to be like clods of earth on your boots. They are just notes of ‘things’, the more banal and lumpen the better. Words as lumps of clay.

Top Shed residency blog 1 (Monday)


I am doing a two-week residency at Top Shed, Pockthorpe, Norfolk. Basically, I get a studio for two weeks and hopefully a bit of head-space to let something happen in it. My intention is to try not to approach it with too many ideas, but to let things come out of having a bit of mental space. Because I’ve never visited Norfolk or Suffolk before and there are a few places I want to visit, I will make some trips around, but I also want to spend time in the studio to think/work/rest.

Yesterday, I took the day to drive down through Lincolnshire, stopping off where the fancy took me. I did a bit of a windmill odyssey. When my brother and I were young, we both got interested in windmills and Lincolnshire is the windmill county par excellence; many of the places became more mythical, hallowed and distant to us than Old Trafford or Elland Road were to my sporty peers. So yesterday I stopped off at Wrawby, Alford and Boston (and passed through Sibsey). Alford and Boston mills were both working (Alford was idling, but Boston was, I guess, actually milling, because it was both turning and closed to the public). As children, my brother and I were taken by train to Heckington and Boston to see the windmills. The mill at Heckington was meant to be working, but the miller didn’t turn up (Boston was fairly dilapidated and lacked shutters in the sails, in those days). Seeing two windmills turning on the same day would have seemed an extraordinary thing to us then.

I also stopped by the mouth of the River Nene on the Wash. The military were dropping bombs or firing artillery way over to my left – I could see the spouts of water through my binoculars. A company called Dong Energy were installing cables out across the salt marshes to some off-shore wind turbines, using two giant caterpillar-tracked machines with the bizarre names of Moonfish and Sunfish (so a board said). A little way up the Nene are two lighthouses across the river from one another. One flew the flag of the European Union and the other the Union Jack. I imagine the occupants shaking their fists at each other across the Nene, and hurling barely audible insults.

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