A place to explore the story of shifting sands in the Brecks.
Zoom in to the Google Map to find the points of interest.
The heathland of Brandon Park today is a reminder of the open Brecks landscape of sheepwalk and rabbit warren over 200 years ago. The sandy topsoil was unstable and prone to blow, forming areas of shifting dune. Brandon Park is part of this ‘sand flood’ story, and fossil dunes can be found in the forest.
Sandy topsoil at White Hill.
Where are the sands and where is the warren? Are not these scenes to my memory foreign? Rabbits and conies were lords of the soil Deep sands made the traveller's journey a toil.
Where are the sands and where is the warren?
Are not these scenes to my memory foreign?
Rabbits and conies were lords of the soil
Deep sands made the traveller's journey a toil.
- A poem by Lord Eldon, c.1830.
In past centuries, carriages would struggle through the ‘burning Brandon sands’. [Image courtesy Beverly Curl]
In 1820, Edward Bliss tamed the sandy wilderness by planting eight million trees here to create a park. In 1935 most of this area became part of Thetford Forest and was planted with pine trees. About 15 years ago, some 35 hectares (86 acres) of forest were restored to heath, allowing heathland wildlife to flourish. A Tomorrow’s Heathland Heritage wildlife panel explains the story (see map).
Heritage information panel.
Brandon Park is part of the ‘sand flood’ story of past centuries. Overgrazing by sheep and rabbits from Mediaeval times onwards destabilised the dry, sandy topsoil and, coupled with a cold, dry period known as the Little Ice Age (1550-1850), created ‘desert’ conditions which lasted for several centuries. “Nothing was to be seen on either side but sand and scattered gravel without the least vegetation; a mere African desert”, wrote William Gilpin, when passing through Brandon in 1769. When the wind blew, the sand formed dunes that moved across the open landscape.
A blown-out patch of dune sand. The sand sedge Carex arenaria is helping to bind the soil.
In the 1660s, Thomas Wright wrote about a ‘Sand-Floud’ that had originated in the Lakenheath and Wangford area and eventually engulfed the village of Santon Downham almost blocking the Little Ouse river. A brown stone in the south-west corner of St Mary’s Church wall is said to mark the height it reached by the sand. The shifting dunes must have passed through the area of Brandon Park. A few active dunes survive today at Wangford Warren nature reserve
St Mary’s Church, Santon Downham. Can you spot the brown stone marking the height the ‘sand flood’ is said to have reached?
You can find relict dunes, perhaps several centuries old, in the Park and surrounding forest (see map). They are now stabilised by vegetation, but the loose soil at White Hill (see map) shows how vulnerable the bare land would have been to wind erosion in the past. Many white flints lie scattered about; fresh flint is black, but it may change colour over thousands of years due to the effects of weathering and groundwater.
An old dune (near Magpie Clump).
Old dunes (forest edge).
The soils here are acidic and poor in nutrients; humus and iron minerals are washed downwards to form a cemented horizon in the subsoil - the classic sandy heathland soil type known as a podzol. You can see a trench showing a podzol soil profile nearby in the forest (see map). The University of East Anglia use it to teach soil science.
UEA soil research trench.
Brandon Park is public access land - see Ordnance Survey Explorer map no.229 ‘Thetford Forest in The Brecks’ for details (c.TL 778 844). It is best accessed from Brandon Country Park, where there are car parking, visitor centre, café and restroom facilities.