Orfordness Lighthouse
Current Version Built:
Height (ft):
William Wilkins
Trinity House (until 2013)

This impressive lighthouse stood alone on the vast shingle expanse of Orford Ness, a vast but largely barren shingle peninsular with a fascinating history that includes the development of Radar, Cold War early warning systems, and atomic weapon tests.

The Lighthouse was 30 meters tall and built of brick. At some point the structure had been strengthened by 5 steel retaining bands which give the tower its distinctive ridged profile. The exterior was stuccoed and painted white with two broad red bands, making it a well-known and easily recognised landmark of East Anglia. Construction of this iconic building (designed by William Wilkins) began in 1792, and was completed the following year, being oil lit from the beginning. ‘The report of the Royal Commissioners on Lights, Buoys, and Beacons, 1861’ shows that the light at Orfordness was lit by 16 “Argand lamps, burners ⅞ of an inch, and parabolic reflectors 21 inches diameter, 9 inches deep” with two new burners being added to this array in 1859 at the suggestion of an inspecting committee.

The tower stood originally as one of a pair range lights and was the last of 12 light towers to be built on the spit over the years – up until the construction of this lighthouse, every time the low light of the range was damaged or destroyed by coastal erosion, the rear light became the front light, and another was built further back as the new rear. 1887 saw the destruction of the last front-range light on the spit when it was flooded and made structurally unsafe; the keepers escaped and abandoned the lighthouse, which amazingly stood for a whole year before collapsing. It is said that the foundations of this last low lighthouse remain visible at low tide.

The lighthouse was 2 miles from the village of Orford, but required a short boat trip to access the site, followed by a walk along a series of ex-MOD concrete roads. Straying from the concrete roadways is not advised, as many bombs were dropped on the spit during weapon tests over the years, and it is highly probable that undetonated ordnance remains buried in the area.

In 2010 as Trinity House was preparing to discontinue the light and dispose of the structure, one would enter the tower’s portico (A late addition to the structure) from a door on its side. Directly ahead was a bank of electrical equipment, with the original door to the tower located on the left, above which was the date stone, which read “MDCCXCII” (1792). Inside the tower itself was more electrical equipment mounted to the walls, and on the left side was the start of the spiral staircase.

Climbing upwards, just below the half-way stage there was a mezzanine floor for the separate red and green sector lights which date from the alterations to the tower in 1914, prior to which coloured sectors were shown from the lantern room using coloured shades in front of the light, meaning that the shaded areas would have shared the same flashing characteristic as the main light. Having the sector lights lower down in the structure allows them to remain permanently illuminated, showing a fixed light, with the main light at the top of the tower retaining its flashing character separately. One of the red sectors marked the Sizewell Bank to the North and was visible for 14 nautical miles. A red and green light shone South; The green light over Hollesley Bay was visible for 14 nautical miles, whilst the red sector covering Whiting Hook and Whiting Bank were visible for 15 nautical miles. Around 2010 it had been found that Whiting Bank had shifted, and instead of re-positioning the lenses, Trinity House installed a projector to shine a red light over the new position of the sand bank, supplementary to the old sector lights. This projector was mounted in front of the south-facing sector light window on the outside sill.

Further up the tower you would come to the Watch Room, where replacement bulbs and panes of glass for the lantern room are stored. From here the last part of the climb (like in many other UK Lighthouses) was by way of a steep ship ladder – this saved floor space in the much smaller Lantern Room above. At the top of the tower was the huge 4-ton 2nd order 700mm three panel catadioptric lens, also dating from the 1914 upgrade works. This impressive optical system made one full rotation every 15 seconds, flashing once every 5 seconds, casting a beam of white light visible for 25 nautical miles.

The station was manned by a Principal and Assistant Keeper, who were able to live at the lighthouse with their families in two 2-storey cottages, until 1938 when the Ministry of Defence started undertaking Lethality and vulnerability testing using various munitions and bombs to determine the vulnerability of aircraft; after this point the lighthouse was considered a rock station, where only the keepers were allowed to live. Following WWII, the Ness continued to serve as a testing and research site by the MOD, and was strictly off limits to the public, guarded by Police and surrounded by a perimeter fence.

In 1959 the lighthouse underwent further modifications when the vaporised paraffin burners were replaced by 3Kw bulbs running on mains electricity, with automatic lamp changers to act as a fail-safe, as well as various other advancements including a standby generator and backup batteries in-case the mains electricity supply was lost. It was also at this time that the East cottage was demolished. In 1964 the lighthouse was converted to automatic operation, with the last keepers leaving on 25th September 1965. With the automation here complete the station became the first to be remotely monitored from the headquarters of Trinity House in Harwich, and with the last keepers moved out the remaining West cottage was demolished later that year. Between 1913 and 1983 the ness was used by the MOD for military purposes, and public access was strictly forbidden – Bombs were dropped, and machine guns were fired nearby, but the lighthouse remarkably came away unscathed.

Exactly like its predecessors, however, this lighthouse was also to fall victim to coastal erosion. Storms ate away at the ever-changing shoreline and removed meters of shingle from in front of the lighthouse over the years. In 2005 the distance from the tower to the sea was approximately 20 meters, but this had halved by the early 2010s, and it was getting close to the foundations of the tower with every major storm. In preparations for the light to be discontinued, nearby Southwold lighthouse underwent alterations between October and December 2012, to increase range and change the light’s character. Orfordness Lighthouse was decommissioned on June 27th 2013, bringing an end to 376 years of navigational lights on the site.

The Orfordness lighthouse trust was formed by Nicholas Gold, the steward of the Orfordness nature reserve. He purchased the lighthouse from Trinity House for the sum of £2000, with the aim of preserving it as a landmark for as long as possible. Following decommissioning, the lighthouse was opened for tours on select days of the year, and a team of volunteers, with the help of donations, tried their best to protect the tower with temporary erosion prevention techniques. One technique they used following storms in 2014 and 2015 was large plastic sausage-shaped bags full of shingle laid-out on the beach to dampen the force of the waves. This proved effective for a time, helping prolong the life of the tower; despite this, in 2019 the lighthouse was undermined, and on October 1st one of the outbuildings that had once been part of the living accommodation at the tower's base, collapsed into the sea.

Inevitably, demolition of the lighthouse commenced on July 16th 2020 after it was determined that the structure had itself become a hazard. The roof was cut away, and both it and the lantern were removed and lowered by a crane for future preservation, whilst the rest of the tower was torn down. The Orfordness Lighthouse Trust had planned to reconstruct the lantern room near Orford village as a tribute to the lighthouse, but this has not happened yet. All of the optical equipment was removed when Trinity House vacated the tower, and the main lens can now be found inside the headquarters of the International Maritime Organization on the Albert Embankment, London.

No traces of the lighthouse on the site, but the spit itself is usually opened in the summer by the National Trust, who manage the site.