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Orford Ness: former RFC Officers' Mess and AWRE canteen building

A Grade II Listed Building in Orford, Suffolk

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Latitude: 52.0825 / 52°4'57"N

Longitude: 1.5501 / 1°33'0"E

OS Eastings: 643332

OS Northings: 248635

OS Grid: TM433486

Mapcode National: GBR XS0.GQ0

Mapcode Global: VHM88.TXBD

Entry Name: Orford Ness: former RFC Officers' Mess and AWRE canteen building

Listing Date: 10 April 2014

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1416867

Location: Orford, Suffolk Coastal, Suffolk, IP12

County: Suffolk

District: Suffolk Coastal

Civil Parish: Orford

Traditional County: Suffolk

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Suffolk

Church of England Parish: Orford St Bartholomew

Church of England Diocese: St.Edmundsbury and Ipswich

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The former RFC Officers' Mess built in approximately 1915 and extended in the 1950s by the AWRE. Refurbished 2012-2013.


The Officers' Mess was built by the RFC in approximately 1915 and was used by Watson-Watt for early experiments on radar.

The former Officers' Mess is constructed from pre-cast concrete blocks with a felted and pitched timber roof; the AWRE extension to the west is in red brick.

A 'T' shape overall.

The former Officers' Mess is a four-bay building with a gable roof with four timber casement windows to the north and south elevations (some are early C21 replica timber windows). The principal entrance is at the east elevation. At the south elevation is a truncated brick chimney stack, presumably for a stove or fireplace.

Attached at the west end is a single-storey, flat-roofed 1950s extension with casement windows and a door at the west elevation.

There are few fixtures and fittings remaining; the exposed Belfast roof trusses of the 1915 phase have been partially reconstructed.

A number of concrete footings and mast bases, thought to consist of 2 groups of 4  for transmitters to the north and south of the building, and one single large base for a receiver to the west, relate to the radar experimentation of the mid 1930s.


Orford Ness is sited on the Suffolk coast; it is the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe and stretches for about 10 miles (16 km) with a maximum height above sea level of around 4m (13ft). To the west the spit is separated from the mainland by the River Alde-Ore. The spit is divided into two by a channel known as Stoney Ditch, aligned east-west. Prior to the C20, Orford Ness was a rarely visited place; the main economic activity was animal grazing on reclaimed marsh land.

In 1915 the Armament and Experimental Flight of the Royal Flying Corps (later known formally as the Aircraft Armament and Gunnery Experimental Establishment) established a flying field on King’s Marshes to the west of the ditch, now known as the Airfield Marshes, serviced by a range of ancillary buildings arranged along a single track known since 1993 as ‘The Street’, on which ran a narrow-gauge light railway which led back to the jetty. Its main areas of investigation were machine guns and gun sights, bombs and bomb sights, navigation and aerial photography. The Officers' Mess is located at the far south-west end of 'The Street', approximately 300m to the south-west of the Barrack Block. The largest buildings on the base were two Bessonneau-type aeroplane sheds, or hangars, (demolished) but there were a number of temporary hangars along the southern edge of the flying field. To protect the station from flooding a Chinese labour battalion was drafted in to construct a seawall; German prisoners of war were also held on the spit and used in construction work. By the end of the war the establishment numbered about 600, but after the signing of the armistice the establishment was closed and placed on a care and maintenance regime.

From 1924 the airfield was re-occupied as a satellite station of the Airplane and Armament Experimental Establishment based at Martlesham Heath. During their tenure, a number of structures were constructed on Orford Beach. Due to its remoteness one of the main activities at Orford Ness was the investigation of bomb ballistics; the study of the flight of objects moving under their own momentum and the force of gravity. Other experimental work continued into the inter-war period. In 1935, a small experimental radar team led by Robert Watson-Watt arrived and conducted experiments that were critical in proving the value of this technology.

Between 1953 and 1971, the spit was occupied by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. Its primary task was environmental testing to simulate the conditions that nuclear weapons and their components might experience during trials and in service use. Here science and high politics merged, with investigations that were crucial to the credibility of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent forces, the cornerstone of Cold War defence policy. The last trial took place on 9 June 1971 and the establishment closed on Friday 1 October 1971. On 24 July 1972 Orford Ness formally passed from AWRE to No.2 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit of the RAF. In the following decades they worked to clear the range of unexploded munitions and brought other munitions onto the spit for destruction. This work ceased about 1986, although many unexploded munitions still remain on Orford Ness. Following negotiations with the Ministry of Defence, the National Trust acquired Orford Ness in 1993.

The former RFC Officers Mess was the building where the first radar image was recorded, said to be on 16 June 1935 when the Tizard Committee witnessed an aircraft being followed for 40 minutes. The personal recollection of a member of the radar experimental team is that the Mess was the receiver building; the transmitter building lay to the east, but along with other buildings associated with these first experiments, has been demolished. The Officers' Mess was extended to double the size in the 1950s by the AWRE who used the building as a canteen. It was repaired by the National Trust in 2012-2013, when replica windows were inserted and will have a sustainable future use.

Reasons for Listing

The former RFC Officers' Mess and AWRE canteen building of 1915 and later is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: although extended in the 1950s, the former Officers' Mess is a rare example of its type;
* Historic interest: national historic interest as the building which received the first radar image of aircraft, an innovative technology pioneered by Robert Watson-Watt and his team, which contributed immeasurably to the nation's C20 history;
* Group value: the Officers' Mess has considerable group value with other listed Orford buildings and with the scheduled Atomic Weapons Research Establishment test structures on Orford Beach.

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