Breckland Heritage Tours: Explore the landscape and history of the Brecks.

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Text and photography © James Williamson | info@norfolknaturesafari.co.uk
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IT DIDN'T USED TO LOOK AS IT DOES NOW, the landscape that is. If you can force your imagination to reveal a scene from 5,000-years ago, when Neolithic people were just beginning to exploit its apparently meagre resources, a very different panorama would become apparent. You'd be confronted by a sparsely wooded scene where oak, birch and hazel eked out a hungry existence from the light, sandy soils, creating an outlook more reminiscent of the Acacia woodlands found on the African savannah than a western European land. At this time Prehistoric man had gradually begun to settle along the chalk ridge that runs, crescent shaped, from the Thames, through Breckland and on to the Wash estuary. Buried beneath this chalk causeway was a resource that would soon become a major industry for the area: flint. Thus Grime's Graves flint mines came into existence and continued to be exploited for the next 200 - 300-years, leaving the landscape permanently scarred with the giant pockmarks of now extinct mining activities. Utilising newly developed flint implements, Neolithic man was able to clear the wooded vegetation prior to cultivation and livestock farming.

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WE ARE NOW IN THE MIDDLE AGES and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon era, when once again Breckland was economically on a downturn. It was these peoples that created many of the ditches and boundaries that are still remnant within the Brecks and they also introduced the first modern farming methods. Livestock - in particular sheep - were rotated from heath to arable land where they were folded, fertilising the nutrient deficient soil, thus initiating the first true 'brecks'. Crops were of good quality and exported to far off markets. The middle and late medieval periods saw the human population decline, particularly with recurrent outbreaks of the plague, yet at this time the rabbit population rose exponentially, such was the value of their meat and fur: warrening was thus firmly established as the most profitable use of Breckland's poor and infertile soils. Manorial overseers of the time put aside enormous areas of heathland to farm these animals commercially. Stockades that we recognise as warrens were constructed from the scanty resources available to contain these burrowing mammals, where banking made from local turf was piled high to create walls several hundred meters in length, preventing the many thousands of animals from escaping into neighbouring warrens.

 

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THE ADVENT OF THE BRONZE AGE brought with it a new addition to the landscape, that of countless round burial mounds know as barrows, often hiding human remains or precious possessions made from the first forged metals. Interestingly, these burial mounds were predominantly located on the higher grounds away from the densely populated valley areas; perhaps for purposes of hygiene, or superstition - or both. Invaders known as the Beaker Folk are thought to have entered Breckland via the south-eastern estuaries and Fenland rivers, bringing with them pottery and bronze implements.  Throughout the ensuing centuries successive swathes of Continental outcasts are thought to have entered Breckland via southern Britain and the Continent, probably forming the tribe of folk we recognise as the Iceni.
 
 


The Breckland of prehistory was most likely a sparsely wooded landscape with loose, broken areas of low growing trees and scrub, kept in check by roving populations of native red deer. Today, large areas of Lakenheath Warren are reminiscent of this time where open areas of Scot's pine woodland dominate the scene. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM 6 IMAGES)
   



DESPITE THE OPENING-UP OF THE MORE FERTILE CLAYLANDS to the east, ad-hoc farming on a plentiful scale was sustaining a growing Breckland population during the Iron Age, a period when one of Breckland's most distinctive and influential landscape features was formed: its heathlands. As an outcome of the continued grazing of livestock and consequent leaching of the fragile, sandy soils, the tree canopy could never recover, resulting in thousands of acres of former woodland and scrub reverting to open, common land. The soils were now free to move and would control Man's existence within the Breckland environment until modern times. The Romans entered Breckland during a period of poverty when its population was waning. It would seem they had no real interest in the area's flint strewn soils and sand blasted heaths, their only lasting contribution to the Breckland landscape being the Peddar's Way: ruler straight and leading directly from north Essex to the Wash, this typically Roman road was clearly an important trade route for the Roman Empire.

Neolithic Flint Miners at Grime's Graves
The mining of flint is one of prehistoric man's earliest true industries and possibly the reason that stimulated his interest in the Breckland area back in 4,500 BCE.  The flint mines at Grime's Graves exhibit the extraordinary efforts undertaken during Neolithic times to acquire the precious floorstone nodules that were subsequently worked into tools and exported to far off lands. Incredibly, flint is thought to develop from the remains of ancient sea creatures, e.g. sponges. (Illustration Beverly Curl)

 

A FURTHER DECLINE IN THE BRECKLAND POPULATION preceded the modern epoch of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries which introduced the notion of the enclosures system. Formerly productive farmland was being left to revert once again to heathland, or was used for the rearing of the extremely valuable rabbit. Wealthy manorial lords immediately seized the opportunity to increase the size of their estates by 'buying out' the peasant occupants. Parkland landscapes came into prominence and with them came some of the great landscape architects of the time: Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton. Lynford Hall, Buckenham Tofts Hall, Euston, Culford, Livermere and other notable houses acquired new facades. The pheasant and the partridge became a popular distraction amongst the aristocracy and large areas of estate land were for the first time planted with trees as cover for the prized quarry.

 


Weeting Castle Manor House In Ruins
It doesn't look particularly opulent nowadays but in 1180 Weeting Castle was the seat of the knighted Hugh de Plais. It was constructed to display his immense wealth and to entertain guests who would have travelled many miles across the sandy wastes of the Brecks to arrive at the castle's moated gates. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM 14 IMAGES)

AN AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION FOLLOWED.  The landscape was changed once more. Advances in farming knowhow allowed for far more land than ever before to be made productive. Sheep were now reared on specially planted crops such as alfalfa and turnips. The now sheep-free heaths were ploughed and the soil improved with thousands of tons of loam and clay applied from specially dug pits. The open, sprawling field system disappeared once and for all and the iconic 'deal rows' of Scot's pines were planted, primarily to prevent soil shift but also to segregate the large, privately owned fields. Towards the end of the 19th century a further agricultural depression ensued and once more, fertile land reverted back to heathland and was used the rearing of game.

 

THE WORLD WAR AT THE BEGINNING OF THE 20TH CENTURY consumed 25-square miles of the Breckland landscape for a most unusual purpose during 1916. In a bid to combat the burgeoning German forces on the battlefields of Europe, a new secret weapon was developed and tested on land belonging to the Elveden estate. Landships - later to be known as tanks - were manufactured in factories in the Midlands and discreetly transported to the Elveden training area via a specially made railway line. Here, on a mock battlefield mirroring the Somme, troops and tanks were prepared for conflict and, ultimately, victory. The War had left the Nation's timber stocks severely depleted and in its aftermath Man's final, lasting impression on the Breckland landscape became apparent: in 1922, the Forestry Commission began planting the then nascent Thetford Forest. Taking advantage of the post-war slump in agricultural fortunes and lack of rural employment in areas of poor soil quality, tens-of-thousands of acres were purchased at bargain prices from landowners anxious to sell their apparently valueless land. The rate of planting was phenomenal with 900-hectares of raw heath and breck consumed per annum during the mid-twenties. The aspect of the Brecks was once again changed: what new facade will human kind embellish upon it during the next 1000-years? 
A veil of unconditional secrecy hung over 25-square miles of the finest Breckland heath in 1916 as the War Office moved in and sectioned off what was known at the time as the Elveden Explosives Area, to be used by the Heavy Section, Machine Gun Corps, which, in reality, was the testing and training ground for the latest weapon of war - the tank. Little Willy, above right, was the predecessor to the larger and more powerful Mk. 1 tank, originally know as landships.




Elveden Tank Training Area Map
Little Willie Tank
The farming of rabbits, or warrening, was probably extant in the British Isles from the late 12th century onwards when the Normans first introduced the mammals from the Mediterranean. Records suggest it was a profitable industry throughout the Breckland area from the 15th century until the early 20th century, with more than 20 warrens spread across the Breckland landscape. The warreners, such as the Elveden men above, cared and tended to the rabbit's needs as a shepherd would his flock before using a variety of methods to harvest them, including traps, ferrets and lurcher dogs. Warren lodges were constructed to serve as multipurpose buildings: part home, part lookout tower and part larder.  


The pine tree is ubiquitous across the entire Breckland landscape but is not a native to the area. Introduced primarily to be grown as hedgerows and windbreaks to prevent the light, sandy soils shifting from one field to the next and as cover for game during the late 18th century, it asserted its dominance over the area in 1922 when the nascent Thetford Forest was initiated by the Forestry Commission. It is now impossible to stand anywhere in the Brecks where your field of view does not include the silhouette of a pine tree.


Scot's Pine Windbreak and Breckland Field
Pine sapling growing in Thetford Forest
Thetford Warren Lodge
Breckland Warreners of the 1930s
This is what you will experience during your Brecks Landscape Tour:
  • Discover how the grazing of the humble rabbit formed an industry on a landscape scale. You'll visit one of the the last remaining warren lodges and learn how the rabbit became 'King of the heath'.

  • Uncover the whereabouts of one of Britain's smallest churches. You'll visit the diminutive Santon church, neatly tucked away in the Little Ouse valley where the population of the parish never reached more than ten.

  • Follow ancient thoroughfares and track-ways. You'll travel along the Harling Drove Track, used in ancient times by shepherds to transport their sheep flocks to market in nearby East Harling.

  • Explore the ruins of the cryptically named Weeting Castle and its surrounding moat. Here, you'll learn about what luxury living was really like over 900-years ago and how the rich enjoyed themselves.

  • Learn about the origins of Thetford Forest. You'll visit the site of the first block to be planted by the Forestry Commission back in 1922 and understand its significance on the economy of post war Breckland .

  • Explore the largest ring fenced farm in England on the Elveden Estate. Here you'll learn about the painstaking efforts of of Breckland's farmers in trying to grow crops on the poorest soils in Britain.

  • Discover where Little Willie and the Mk 1 tank were tested and developed. You'll visit a landscape that was  shrouded in secrecy during 1916 where only the top, top brass knew what was really going on. 
Scot's pine trees on Lakenheath Warren