An Overview of Bawdsey

Suffolk’s Rivers and Estuaries provide a wealth of natural attractions and experiences for sailing, fishing, walking and cycling. Bawdsey Quay is situated at the mouth of the River Deben which separates Bawdsey from nearby Felixstowe. From the Quay you can see a Martello Tower, one of the defensive towers constructed at the beginning of the 19th Century along the coast in order to ward off an attack from Napoleon. Today, a number of these towers are still standing in various parts of Suffolk.

To find out more about these amazing mini ‘forts’ – including how you can stay in one – take a look at our Guide to Martello Towers in Suffolk

At the Quay itself there’s a good stretch of sandy beach for children to play on, and a lovely Boathouse Cafe to enjoy freshly caught local fish (seasonal opening times apply).

If you drive from Bawdsey to Felixstowe you’d have to go via Woodbridge and the journey would take you about 40 mins. The good news is that the Felixstowe to Bawdsey Ferry operates from early May through to the end of September daily between 10am – 6pm, and October weekends only, 10am – 5pm.

Did you know that radar was developed and first tested in Bawdsey between the two World Wars? Today you can visit the place where much of the ground breaking work in radar technology took place. RAF Bawdsey, operational in 1937, was the first of a chain of radar stations to be built around the coast of Britain. During the Battle of Britain with 2,600 Luftwaffe planes to the RAF’s 640, it was the use of radar for detecting aircraft en route to the UK so they could be intercepted that saved the day.

Bawdsey Radar Station

Did you know that radar was developed and first tested in Suffolk between the two World Wars? Today you can visit the place where much of the ground breaking work in radar technology took place. RAF Bawdsey, operational in 1937, was the first of a chain of radar stations to be built around the coast of Britain. During the Battle of Britain with 2,600 Luftwaffe planes to the RAF’s 640, it was the use of radar for detecting aircraft en route to the UK so they could be intercepted that saved the day.

Following the First World War protecting the UK from attack was discussed at great length, but it was not until 1934 when an air-defence exercise to test defence was carried out that things really started to get going.

Although the targets and routes of the exercise were known, more than half the bombers managed to get through to their targets. This led to the Air Ministry looking at the idea of radio “death rays” which would eliminate or disable pilots and their aircraft. The Scots physicist Robert Watson-Watt, supervisor of a national radio research laboratory and descendant of James Watt, inventor of the first practical steam engine, was contacted and asked for his views.

Watson-Watt dismissed the idea of death rays but said that radio beams could be bounced off enemy aircraft to detect them. He then drew up a memo outlining his ideas and although it was met with enthusiasm, proof that the system could work was demanded.

On 26 February 1935, Watson-Watt and Arnold Wilkins successfully demonstrated their system using a BBC transmitter which managed to pick up a bomber being used as a test target.

In May 1935 Watson-Watt, Wilkins and a small team of scientists moved to Orfordness in Suffolk to conduct a series of historic experiments over the sea that would lead to the world’s first working ‘RADAR’ system. It soon became apparent that Orfordness was inadequate for further research and the nearby Bawdsey Manor Estate was purchased for £24,000 to become the HQ of the operations.

In February 1936 the research scientists occupied Bawdsey Manor House and the stables and outbuildings were converted into workshops. 240ft wooden receiver towers and 360ft steel transmitter towers were built and Bawdsey became the first Chain Home Radar Station. On September 24 1937 RAF Bawdsey became the first fully operational radar station in the world, and by the outbreak of WW11 a chain of radar stations was in place around the coast of Britain.

These radar stations were to prove invaluable during the Second World War and particularly during the Battle of Britain. With 2,600 Luftwaffe planes to the RAF’s 640, it was the use of radar for detecting aircraft en route to the UK so they could be intercepted that saved the day.

After WW11 Bawdsey was used as an RAF base through the Cold War until the 1990’s when the Bloodhound surface-to-air missile was the last ‘tenant’ in this base. On 31st May 1990 the Bloodhound force ceased operations and in June all the missiles were withdrawn to RAF West Raynham. The RAF Ensign was lowered for the last time on the 25th March 1991 and the station closed on the 31st March.

Sadly, the last of the giant transmitter masts came down in 2000, but you can still see photos and exhibits from the stations working days.

These are based at the museum run by volunteers so see Bawdsey Radar Station for more details and opening times.