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The Brecks, Norfolk – barren desert to wildlife-friendly forest

Described by Charles Dickens as ‘barren’ in David Copperfield, and by an observer in the 1760s as ‘sand, and scattered gravel, without the least vegetation; a mere African desert’, the Brecks looks very different now to most of its history.

Brecks pines Deal Row

Deal Rows in the Brecks.

The word Breck is medieval, meaning an area of sandy heathland and gorse that was broken up for farmland and then allowed to revert to wilderness once the soil was exhausted. Sand storms were a regular occurrence in centuries past.

The Brecks once hosted the largest concentration of rabbits in the country – the dry, sandy soil ideal for burrowing. Introduced by the Normans in the 12th century, the rabbits were farmed in warrens for their meat and fur. In the 16th and 17th centuries the warrener was one of the highest paid manorial offices – today the ruins of Thetford Warren Lodge can still be seen.

Thetford Forest Brecks pingo aerial Mike PagePingos and meres in the Brecks.

The Brecks are home to unique Pingo lakes, caused by collapsing dome-shaped mounds of soil covering a large core of ice, and Deal Rows, single rows of Scots pine trees originally planted as hedges which, untended, have grown out and now exhibit twisting and contortion. They are the most distinctive feature of the Brecks landscape and give the impression of acacia trees on the African savannah.

Thetford Forest

Thetford Forest, the largest lowland pine forest in the country.

The creation of the Scots pine Thetford Forest in 1914 helped the creation of better soil, and modern farming methods mean the free-draining soil is perfect for rearing pigs and growing onions. Corsican pine was added later, for its resistance to diseases and pests, tolerance of thin soil and high volume of timber. There are also narrow roadside fire-control belts of hardwood oak, red oak, beech, lime, walnut and maple.

Thetford Forest is the largest lowland pine forest in the country, at 19,000 hectares (47,000 acres), and much of it is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. With its own unique microclimate, it is one of the driest parts of the country.

Thetford Forest High Lodge couple

Thetford Forest is a great place to explore by foot or on two wheels.

The forest is an important provider of timber, but it’s also a wonderful outdoor playground for activities that include birdwatching, cycling, orienteering, walking, horse riding, or for just enjoying a picnic. Start your adventure at High Lodge, run by the Forestry England. You might also be able to spot hares, rabbits, muntjac, roe deer and red deer.

Open areas, created by felling, has encouraged a wide range of birds including breeding sparrow hawks, nightjar, stone curlews, goshawks, siskins, crossbills and over-wintering grey shrikes. This is also one of the few places in England where you’ll find the shy golden pheasant in the wild.

The Brecks was the flint capital of the UK in prehistoric times.

Lynford in the forest is the most important Neanderthal site in the country. Black flint hand axes and the remains of nine butchered woolly mammoths have been found here, dating back 65,000 years ago – this was a prehistoric butchery!

Grimes Graves aerial Mike Page Brecks

An eerie, dimpled lunar landscape marks the only Neolithic flint mine in Britain that’s open to the public. Grime’s Graves, the oldest industrial site in Europe, was worked for around 1000 years from 3000BC to 1900BC and today you can see the depressions in the ground created by 400 pits. Visitors can climb 30 feet down through the chalk surface in one shaft to see the jet-black flint that was used for making axes and starting fires.