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Saturday, 6 November 2010

Expedition to Orfordness Lighthouse

The iconic Orfordness lighthouse

A 9 mile walk from Slaughden Quay to Orfordness

This walk is an arduous ordeal across shingle but worthwhile to see the iconic Orfordeness lighthouse close-up. There are warning signs deterring visitors from straying beyond Slaughden but the large number of fishermen that dot the shoreline throughout demonstrates that public access is tolerated along the beach. This fascinating, stark and eerie landscape is really a sight to behold.

Slaughden Quay to Orfordness Walk - Essential Information

Walk Statistics:

Start point
Slaughden Quay View in OS Map | View in Google Map
End Point
Orfordness View in OS Map | View in Google Map
Total Walk distance
9 miles
Walk difficulty
Shingle throughout
This is land owned by the National Trust. A local fisherman detailed that nothing prevents the public from wandering along the shore towards the lighthouse, although the official access status remains unknown. Notices warn of limited access but appear to allow access along the beach. I was told the signs were part of the deal set up between the National Trust and the fishermen.


The following maps and services can assist in navigating this route. The links include published hard copy as well as online plots and downloadable GPX route data for importing into navigational software and apps.

Ordnance Survey Explorer Map
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Online Ordnance Survey Route
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Online OpenStreetMap Route
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Online Google Route
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GPX data for route (download)

Walk Data

Date of Walk
Walk Time
10:30 to 14:30
Griffmonster, Kat
Weather Conditions
Dry but menacing clouds with glimpses of sunshine

Walk Notes

Orfordness is a spit of vegetated shingle and marshland and for 70 years was the base for secret military operations including testing of atomic bombs. These days it is under the jurisdiction of the National Trust and despite many signs warning of 'No Access' it is possible to navigate along the shingle all the way to the lighthouse.

The only way to return is to either walk through the old military complex and catch a ferry to Orford from where you will need to have prearranged transport or to retrace ones steps back up the shingle to Slaughden. A fascinating, stark and eerie landscape and a tough walk across the shingle but well worth it to get to the famous lighthouse before it is taken by the sea.

The walk was a little longer than anticipated. I had originally planned to explore around the old military installation but with the need to get back home for 3pm due to work commitments and the fact that there was limited light in the day we opted to return straight back and leave the military explorations for another time. Given enough time to explore, it may have been possible to walk some of the distance back on the river side of the spit. This could definitely not be done for the complete distance as the northern end the defences have been breached resulting in a constant flood across the marshes. It seems strange that there are so many signs erected by the National Trust declaring 'Strictly No Access' with the reason given as a fragile habitat for wildlife. Clearly there is not much flora or fauna or wildlife on the shingle track so I do not understand their logic. There are plenty of anglers virtually all the way down the spit to Orfordness so it is clear the warnings are not heeded. Indeed it was an old fisherman who informed me that the signs were added when the National Trust acquired the land and the fishermen wanted to retain the right to fish, so a compromise was brokered and the signs were erected to deter folk not 'in the know' from investigating the ness. It also seems strange that the warnings are towards the wildlife when the fact that this land was used for military exercises and it would be more appropriate to warn of any discarded ammunition which may still be live. Nonetheless it felt good to ignore the warnings and exercise ones right to roam. We did discover a strange battered spherical thing on the beach but it did not explode. Other curiosities were numerous washed up shoes, discarded concrete structure and a few well weathered bones, origin unknown but probably some deceased sea creature! This is a bleak and eerie landscape. There is nothing out here but shingle and marsh and derelict buildings so if you intend to spend a full day exploring it is wise to take food and water.

The start of 2016 saw a southerly wind where storms started causing damage and erosion to both the sea defence at Slaughden and the beach in front of the lighthouse, threatening its very existence. Facebook group Aldeburgh and Surrounding Images recorded the damage in pictures which are available at whilst both BBC added an article of the threat to the Lighthouse titled Orfordness lighthouse 'perilously' close to falling into sea and the East Anglian Daily Times article declared On the brink of disaster

Foreboding Ordfordness
Foreboding Ordfordness


The most direct way to walk between Leiston and Saxmundham avoiding the main road

Follow the sea defence bank south of Slaughter. Soon you come to a locked gateway with a sign saying 'Strictly No Access'. It is clear from the many anglers that no-one appears to take notice of this. Continue onwards. When the path divides with another 'Strictly No Access' sign, continue on the track parallel to the beach. Yet another gateway bars progress and this one has barbed wire either side but it is possible to cgo down to the sea and walk around. From here follow the beach to the lighthouse or take a track that branches off to the right which will lead back to the beach just before the lighthouse.

Fishermen dot the shore along the nessOrfordness Lighthouse
On the left Fishermen dot the shore along the ness; On the right Orfordness Lighthouse


Orfordness lighthouseView in OS Map | View in Google Map

There has been a lighthouse at Orfordness since 1634 when John Meldrum was granted a patent to build two temporary lights between Sizewell Bank and Aldeburgh Napes. The present building was designed by the architect William Wilkins and constructed in 1792 by Lord braybrooke. This was built further back than its predecessors. The revolving lens which floats on a trough of mercury dates from 1914. The lighthouse was converted to electric in 1959 and remote control switches added in 1964 which are operated from Harwich. The last live-in lighthouse keeper was in 1965. The lighthouse, which produced a flash every 5 seconds and could be seen for up to 25 miles around finally ceased to function on Thursday 27th June 2013 after Trinity House, who operated the lighthouse, recommended it for closure as with increasing technology on board vessels it is considered surplus to requirement. To cover for the lack of the light, Southwold lighthouse was upgraded with a more powerful beam .

The lighthouse gained a reputation for fooling an airbase into believing that a UFO landed in the distant Rendlesham Forest during the Christmas period of 1980. This was used as the main explanation during the early days of the investigation into the incident. Few would now support this explanation after considering the evidence and first hand witness accounts of what happened over the nights of incident.

One of many signs deterring the would-be visitor away from investigating further
One of many signs deterring the would-be visitor away from investigating further


Below are a selection of images taken from from the photo album for this walk. Feel free to browse through these or click on an image to view a larger version in the Gallery.

Summary of Document Changes

Last Updated: 2017-12-19

2016-01-05 : Update to modern format


  1. An interesting walks, but I can confirm the National Trust are none to keen on access. I walked past the Martello Tower where there was a barrier "Strictly no access", but after that I dropped down onto the beach (my understanding is that the ownership of land ends at the mean high water line, therefore if you walk below high water line you are not on private land and can't be stopped).

    There were only 4 fisherman on the shingle spit when I walked here but unfortunately for me the last one I passed, around 2 miles beyond the Materllo tower turned out to be an "off duty" volunteer for the National Trust at Orford Ness who was spending the day fishing. He told me I was not supposed to be here and couldn't possibly have missed the "numerous signs saying no access". I explained I was only walking along the beach and thought that since I was below the high water mark it was allowed because the foreshore is not private. (The only signs I saw unfortunately did not mention rights for fisherman like the one you have photographed).

    Anyway once I explained I was walking only on the beach he told me that I must stick only to the beach and that I should keep out of the way of the warden but if I stuck to the beach he would likely not know I was here and leave me alone. I was told under no cicrumstances could I stray from the beach and if I headed up onto the top of the shingle spit I would be spotted by the warden.

    Also I was told that the NT take down the names of all visitors to the spit at Orford Quay where you pay, so that they know who is here and they can count them off and on (and ensure no one is left behind). They also limit the number of visitors to 150 per day. Therefore they do not want people walking here and I was told you would not be allowed to use the ferry one way because they collect your ticket on arrival and you have to ask for it (giving your name) before you can return on the ferry.

    The Lighthouse was sold by Trinity House to a private individual around 2 years ago. The relationship between this owner and the NT is also not good I'm told.


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