The Brecks are a diverse landscape just 20 minutes drive from my home in Bury St Edmunds. Although so close, I am always amazed by the surreal sense of place evoked when I visit. The ethereal quality of the Scots and Corsican pines, the pungent aromaof pine heathland, a wide array of puffballs and other fungi, the stone curlews and nightjars calling and the soft sandy soils all contribute to a unique and identifiable sense of place. The Brecks are a place where I first discovered wild barberry in flower,happened upon a collection of Neolithic firestones and made new friends.
The endless inspirations and different landscape characters within the Brecks led me to organise a series of Art workshops capturing the beauty. Workshops invited the general public, together with children with special needs, adults recovering from mental health issues and learning difficulties to take part in learning about the environment of the Brecks and use this information to inspire art. River corridors, forests, heathland and trails, Anglo Saxon heritage, fungi, rocks, flowers, leaves, insects, trees, roots, birds, rotting logs and more were captured imaginatively by willing artists aged 3-89. Some of these results can be seen currently at Brandon Country Park and will also be on display in the Apex from January 12th-31st.
Stephanie Hartick-Landscape Patterns project leader
In 1906 a young Virginia Woolf spent an idyllic summer at Blo' Norton Hall, a moated manor house on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. 'Nessa paints windmills … and I tramp the country for miles with a map, leap ditches, scale walls and desecrate churches making up beautiful brilliant stories every step of the way'. Much has changed since then; the open heath reduced by plough and pine forest to a few isolated nature reserves, but the atmosphere of this empty, secretive landscape that Woolf found so exhilarating still exists if you know where to go and what to look for. The Brecks is like nowhere else, a special place with its own unique flora, its iconic birds, fluctuating meres and pingoes, its own traditions of flint knapping and warrening and an unrivalled archaeological heritage.
Some of the most exciting finds have been unearthed form the black peat soil on the edge of the Fens. Among the most remarkable is the Oxborough Dirk, a Bronze Age dagger in pristine condition placed in a stream as a votive offering, but the Breck-Fen edge is best known for the spectacular hoards of Roman silver buried during the Boudican uprising. The most famous is the Mildenhall Treasure, including the great Neptune dish, dug up in a sugar beet field in 1946, followed in 1962 by the beautifully worked Hockwold drinking cups and the Thetford Treasure of silver spoons and gold rings set with precious stones unearthed in 1979 on Gallows Hill. This sequence of fabulous jewellery was extended into the Late Saxon period when six intricately decorated silver disc brooches were dug up in Pentney churchyard by the local sexton.
All these magnificent finds are now in the British Museum but, hidden away in the landscape are architectural gems from Breckland’s medieval past, most memorably beside the river Gadder where the mellow brick towers of Oxburgh Hall’s majestic Tudor gatehouse rise to break the treeline. One of the most romantic moated halls in England, Oxburgh’s great treasure is the needlework panels completed by Mary Queen of Scots during her confinement here. In St John’s church are the sumptuous early c16 terracotta tombs aglow with late afternoon sunlight in the Bedingfield chapel. Even more remote is the late c14 gatehouse, recently restored, to Pentney Priory, the most westerly of a series of monastic sites in the ‘Holy valley of the Nar’.
The churches too are treasure houses of medieval art notably the outstanding c11 wall paintings discovered during restoration at Houghton-on-the-Hill, are among the earliest and most important in western Europe. East Harling has one of the finest churches in Norfolk and a feast of medieval craftsmanship from painted screens and gilded monuments to a complete set of Norwich School glass in the east window. But for atmosphere and quiet reflection the interior of Thompson church is an unrivalled mix of limewashed walls, a beautiful c14 screen and silvery grey oak benches.
At every turn in the Brecks there are new discoveries and new delights and who knows what still lurks beneath the beet fields or behind crumbling plaster. Virginia Woolf fell in love with this ‘strange grey green, undulating, dreaming, philosophising and remembering land’ and more than a century later who could disagree?
Formerly Breckland District’s Conservation Officer, Peter Tolhurst’s second volume of Norfolk Parish Treasures: Breckland and South Norfolk published by Black Dog Books (£25 hardbackl and £20 softback) is out now. Available from local bookshops or www.blackdogbooks.co.uk
I'm ashamed to say, that when I first moved here two years ago, from a hazy grey London overspill, I had never even heard of this unique and incredible place.
But after my arrival, I blended straight in. It felt like I was always destined to be a part of this landscape. The colours and textures, the people, the wildlife, everything just seemed to 'fit right'. And so I slotted in to my new life. Like a hand slipping into a well worn glove.
But the beauty I have found here frightens me. Well, to be more exact I'm frightened for it, like an anxious parent watching over a child. I fear for the future of the Brecks. It seems so vulnerable. There are greedy, opportunist people who would destroy this beauty, to build more houses or roads. Do people still not understand the value of our countryside? Is it viewed merely as a commodity, a development opportunity? Something to be sold off to the highest bidder?
It seems so much has been lost already. I fear for this place which lacks the protection of a National Park or AONB.
I want to do everything I can to raise awareness of the Brecks, to help it receive the status and protection it deserves.
I get unnecessarily angry, when people don't appreciate the wildlife that surrounds us here.
When they don't notice the things that bring me so much joy!
The buds on the trees.
The scent of the pines.
The beetle that scurries across the path.
The hare in the field.
The song of the yellowhammer and the skylark.
People seem to walk round with their eyes and ears closed.
We live in an area that is home to some unique and valuable species which are specific to the Brecks. But we're a generation of people who seem to spend our lives staring at the screen of a phone, and viewing our entire life through social media. Walking around somehow oblivious to all this beauty.
Since my arrival here, my senses seem heightened. I see and hear more than I ever did before. Being here is the best move I ever made in my life, for me and for my family. I only wish I'd got here sooner!
Social media has its uses. It's a great platform to broadcast and showcase the beauty of this Breckland landscape. But get out there and see things first hand. The sights, the smells, the sounds. And leave your phone at home… You won't be disappointed..
Alison Barnes, Sandlines Poetry Workshop Participant
I used to drive up and down the A14 between Newmarket and Bury, and along the A11 to Norwich, oblivious to the world going on beyond the twisted Scots Pines edging the roads. After six years working here, I have discovered some of the secretive, fascinating world I’d been missing. To me now the Brecks is both the broad landscape of heaths and busy agricultural fields and the fascinating species that inhabit these places. I love the heaths, which reflect the changing of seasons with their changing colours. I find myself on hands and knees looking at tiny Breck flowers, often miniature to cope with the Brecks poor soil; dry, cold climate and to beat the teeth of grazing animals. I catch my breath at the stunning blue of a miniature Breckland speedwell flower, or the exquisite colouring of eyebright seen through my hand lens.
Then there are stone curlews, which I spend my time working with. With their long yellow legs, knobbly knees and large yellow eyes, they creep across the flinty ground doing their best not to be seen. On the farms and heaths on which they nest, I see them as ‘my’ birds. I want to know what they are about, I want to know whether their eggs are hatched and if their chicks are fledged. I am delighted when chicks I have colour ringed return safely to breed themselves. I grin as I pass a field, knowing that a pair of these birds are in there, guarding eggs, bringing up young. I love it too when people come to Cavenham Heath in late August and September to see these birds as they gather before flying off for the winter. I delight in people’s excitement at seeing them and we share the thrill of hearing their weird calls as they fly off at dusk to feed. (I’m also glad people will go to Weeting Heath, which Norfolk Wildlife Trust has set up so people can see stone-curlews during the summer, to avoid disturbing them elsewhere.)
My grandfather farmed in the Fens. As a small child I stood by him as he hoed rows of onions or beet by hand. The Brecks to me now is also the people I have come to know who are rooted here: farmers who are glad to know how ‘their’ birds are doing, the tractor driver who laughingly flaps his arms at me like a bird as he passes me, the gamekeeper who breaks off his lunch break to pull my vehicle out of a muddy hole!
Out here in the Brecks my soul has space to breathe, to delight, to wonder – and to just be.
Jo Jones, Stone Curlew Field Worker Volunteer, RSPB Wings over the Brecks Project
On a brisk February morning I strolled along the Little Ouse at Santon Downham and gazed into its mesmerising water. Mist upstream made the distance disappear. The river looped out of the woods. It seemed to spring from the tree roots then swirl along, deep and sparkling. I watched its current in the waterweed ribboning downstream. It was too cold for swimming but in my mind’s eye I saw myself remove my shoes and step in. There are fish in the Little Ouse and when I visited the river again in April I saw finger-length tiddlers nibbling the gravel near the berms. By then the trees were coming into leaf, the woods filling with green light and birdsongs, and the river took in all of this atmosphere and amplified it. I sat on the bank and closed my eyes. What I couldn’t see, I could hear and sense: the river’s travel, the trickle-click of water over shingle and the little pop of a fish breaking the surface; the sculling sound when a pair of mallard landed.
When I think of the Brecks I think of rivers: the Little Ouse, the Thet, the Lark. Each one is an exquisite ecosystem and an enchantment. In May I followed the Thet to Nuns’ Bridges and saw it take on the character of a town river. In June, along the Lark, I heard my first cuckoo of the year from a riverbank fluttering with dragonflies and cinnabars. And at the Little Ouse that day in April, just as I was about to leave, a swan flew over, high above the trees, neck at full stretch – graceful and astonishing, a Brecks creature – following the river.
Lois Williams - Sandlines Project.
Travelling through the Brecks was a regular part of my childhood, taking the long drive from Bury St Edmunds through Thetford, on to Swaffham and beyond. We didn’t call it the Brecks – it was the forest – a blank canvas, empty of people and with very little traffic. We rarely stopped but saw from the car window, tunnels of trees stretching ahead, sometimes dark and misty, sometimes dancing in early autumn sunlight. Occasionally we glimpsed a red squirrel, sadly no longer part of this landscape. Once we explored the underground flint mines before health and safety capped them off to visitors. To a child nurtured in rolling farmland and Norfolk coastlines, this was an alien land. Beyond the road lurked secrets. It felt even more alien when we encountered the American bases, the miles of wire, the tumuli of arsenals, the left-hand drive jeeps that barrelled past us.
Now, running the Sandlines writing project, I have discovered a different place. Our workshops have taken us into the heart of the forest to explore long tracts of heathland haunted by stone curlew, tumbled meadows, flint-faced churches and poignant gravestones. We have learned that this seemingly barren desert of trees and sand, harbours a rich wildlife and an even richer history. I have followed the story of glaciers retreating, ancient people arriving, flints being knapped, rabbits nurtured, sands drowning settlements and then man taking more control, planting trees, creating parks and preparing for war. Perhaps the Brecks’ biggest secret is its rivers. We have walked along the Thet, the Little Ouse and the Lark and discovered jewels of insect life, a chorus of bird song and bright chuckling waters. In such a dry sandy landscape, the rivers channel life and laughter into the heart of the forest.
Melinda Appleby - Sandlines Project.
What does The Brecks mean to me? It means walking across wide open heathlands, under big blue skies, before diving into dense pine forests. It means exploring miles of footpaths, going on invigorating off-road cycle rides, and birdwatching for elusive birds.
The Brecks is a wild landscape that I have fallen in love with. I love the way the loose sandy soils support long lines of iconic, twisted, contorted Scots Pines. They frame the landscape, create something quite unique and so very distinctive. I love learning about the subtle variations of the forest, identifying the Scots Pine from the Corsican Pine, meandering through dense avenues of dripping Larch, and coming across magnificent Giant Redwoods. And I love the variety of wildlife; spotting muntjacs just before they scoot off through the woods, hearing woodpeckers, and this spring spotting Goshawks performing a ‘Sky Dance’ above the tree line.
The solitude of the Brecks is magical. It’s a tranquillity that is broken by bird song of jays, crows and magpies. And then I simply love the shockingly unexpected boom of jets from Lakenheath airbase, watching the F15’s as they bank just above the tree line.
The Brecks is all these things plus more. Having worked in the area for just a very short time, for me it’s also a welcoming community of cheerful greengrocers, friendly neighbours and helpful local businesses. The Brecks is a wild landscape with warm people and I’m so very pleased to be involved in it.
David Falk, Manager of Brandon Country Park
The Brecks to me is all about discovery and intrigue; a landscape steeped in history and biodiversity so close to where I live and yet so unexplored by myself and so many others.
Having lived and worked in the Fens for a number of years I had grown accustomed to big skies and uninterrupted views, admittedly wishing for a bit of woodland on some days. The Brecks is such a different landscape, beautiful dense forest, open heaths and river valleys offering such a different experience to what I am used to. I have loved getting to know the Brecks, learning about the strangely named Pingos, the intrigue of the pine lines, sitting patiently to observe a stone curlew and hearing the complex tale of the basil-heath case-bearer moth!
The Brecks to me is also about getting to know the people; spending a day with John and Val Lord having a go at the mystical art of flint knapping and hearing all about the history of flint in these parts. I like the idea that Neolithic people took as much pride in the look of their flint axe as its functionality, as did I. The passion for the Brecks is evident wherever you turn and the people are warm and willing to share their experiences and stories.
My appetite for the Brecks has been awakened and I will continue on my voyage of discovery….there are so many stories and places yet to be explored.
Rebekah O’Driscoll, BNG Project Officer
Four o'clock February sun
throws east over furrowed earth.
Orange light tips ploughed pink crests
of dry sandy soil.
defined in pine;
bent trunks and crooked elbows lounge neighbourly
sunning themselves under hats of blue-green velvet nap,
awaiting frost-snap of night.
A textiled cover of corduroy fields
stitched in pine
thrown over chalk
by careless ice.
Norfolk Geodiversity Partnership
Above all the Brecks for me is an escape – away from the Suffolk boulder clay landscape of cottages and oak trees where I was brought up, into a more aromatic world of pine trees and heather, a sandy surface where the flint tools of our prehistoric ancestors lie scattered as though they were dropped yesterday; houses and people are few and far between, roads are straighter, and forested vistas expand and contract unexpectedly. It is a strange land; my imagination becomes more alive here. The Brecks is a new landscape printed over an ancient heathland core. This is reflected in the contrast between the two words we have given it: Brecks and Breckland. For me, the area’s proper name will always be Breckland: the land portrayed so unforgettably by WG Clarke in chapter two of ‘In Breckland Wilds’ (1925); the land I visited for picnics when I was a child - a dark world of forests just over the horizon (Thetford Chase, my father called it) where wolves must roam, though only the whisper of wind among the tree tops and their serried trunks threatened our picnics; the land of shifting dunes and sandy spaces running with rabbits that we read about in Thomas Wright’s account (1668), and which my family once had a share in, at Wangford Warren (sold in 1866).
Breckland has complex, age-old stories to tell - it is so singular that it begs interpretation. In 1999 – 2002 I worked for the Brecks Countryside Project, creating leaflets and outdoor panels to relate some of its stories for a wider audience. Nothing I did then has damaged its distinctive character. Mist still rises in the Devils’ Punchbowl; rare moths and remarkable plants continue to thrive in fragile places; abandoned galleries of flint mines still slumber tranquilly in their native chalk. ‘Breaking New Ground’ is focused on promoting an understanding and care of this unique area, and I look forward to playing my part in that process too, by bringing forward four Earth heritage-related projects - the first begins next year. Through them, I hope to reveal the ways in which the physical landscape has evolved against the backdrop of deep time - a story of water, wind and ice, sand, gravel and chalk – and the ways in which wildlife and human settlement have changed in the Brecks over multi-millennial timescales. By getting to know these overlooked aspects of the landscape’s history, we deepen our appreciation of it and weave the thread of new stories to pass on to family and friends. Meanwhile, I shall continue to make my escapes into Breckland wilds, and find solitude and inspiration there.
Norfolk Geodiversity Partnership
Many people pass through the Brecks on their way to some other destination and many of these comment that it's all the same, it's flat, it's all trees.
For anyone who cares to stop in the Brecks and observe their surroundings with a critical eye the opposite is true. I could never be bored with its sheer variety; the vast open heaths, the forests and crooked pines, the rivers and meres, the history, the architectural heritage, the unique biodiversity and, of course the uninterrupted skies with their wonderful light and magnificent cloudscapes.
Yet delve deeper into the Brecks – its history and culture – with those enthusiastic and knowledgeable folk from The Breckland Society and a different Brecks is revealed. I discovered it had been a land dominated by thousands of rabbits living in medieaval warrens. And, across the centuries from neolithic times until the twentieth century, it was a land of miners who burrowed deep into the earth searching for good black Breckland flint. And there’s more for me to discover, much more! The military’s role in the life of the Brecks, and the importance of sheep played in the local economy are just two projects being researched over the next eighteen months by The Breckland Society under the umbrella of the Breaking New Ground partnership. And this summer the society will guide me around the ancient town of Thetford, introduce me to the art of the Brecks, life at RAF Watton, Queen Boudica and DanielDefoe. Did you know that Defoe travelled in the Brecks? I didn’t.
Secretary The Breckland Society