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The Brecks

The Brecks is a large area of land covering part of south west Norfolk and part of north west Suffolk. The area is characterised by poor sandy soils (with a high flint concentration) and sparse woodland. The word breck derives from 'broken' land and was coined by W.G. Clarke in 1894. As the land was of limited use for agriculture - much of the area was historically used for rabbit warrens - as place-names such as: Thetford Warren, Santon Warren and Wangford Warren remind us. The area was also prone to dust storms and in 1677 the diarist John Evelyn observed that: 'The Travelling Sands.......that have so damaged the country, rouling from place to place, like the Sands in the Deserts of Lybia, quite overwhelmed some gentleman's whole estates.'

Breckland Pines

Pine Trees in the Brecklands

Looking at the county map today, it can be seen that the area supports a smaller population than other parts of Norfolk - as evidenced by the widely spaced villages. This under-population was further exacerbated by the creation of the Stanford Training Area (STANTA) in 1942 - which cleared the villages of Tottington, Stanford, West Tofts, Buckenham Tofts and Lynford to create space for military training and manoeuvres. These villages are still deserted today - although they can be visited with special permission from the MOD.

Ironically, the Brecks is now the site of the largest lowland pine forest in the country - in the form of Thetford Forest - which is managed by the Forestry Commission. The forest was established during World War I to provide timber for the war effort. However, while it helped to stabilise the 'shifting sands' it also unfortunately destroyed hundreds of acres of traditional heathland and endangered species such as the stone curlew.

Thetford Forest

Thetford Forest

Young Conifers in Thetford Forest

Young Conifers in Thetford Forest

In her poem Thetford Forest, the Norfolk-based poet Julia Webb has captured the unique atmosphere of a winter's morning in the forest:

Frozen mud-pelt of the early morning.
The air bristles with frost-shine, 

our winter breath hangs
whitening momentarily in the air before us.

And on into deep grey dark,
where the trees close in on us.

A gentle crackle in the glooming,
rolling pine cones and rabbit droppings,

faraway bird-call and the startle-flap
of a fresh waked pigeon.

Deer-eye startles, twigs fire rounds
of snapper-jawed ammunition,

spiky fingers gnarl,
chipper of wood-peel, crack and splinter.

Finally we are out amongst
left over leaf-mould

into the stark-limbed skeleton
of the deciduous forest.

The sky opens out - a gap of relief
after the ink-smudge conifers.

We gulp lung after lung of early winter,
see every third tree marked with a cross,

a yellow smear
where the saw will bite,   

flaking jackets of bark barely
covering pale bodies,   

blood-sap stinks up the air
with its honey-thick sweetness.

There have been a number of writers whose work has been influenced or set in the region including the novelist Mary Mann - who lived and is buried in Shropham and Christopher Bush (aka Michael Home) - who was born at Great Hockham. Here is an extract from Home's autobiographical novel Spring Sowing describing the landscape of the brecks:

'I wish, too, that I could convey to you the incredible beauty of that vast and lonely country. For all its quietude there was in it nothing forbidding. It had space and freedom and the friendliness of growing things. The heaths and brecks had their gentle undulations so that in lanes and tracks one never saw too far ahead. And then again there would be great sweeps of open country. And even there the miles of bracken or heather would have no monotony for they would be broken by ancient woods or clusters of gnarled pines, and mossy pools with their silver branches, or the oases of silver sand which were the burrows of the teeming rabbits. Above would be the open sky, and across the clear stretches it would be hard to tell where the faint blue of the horizon ended and the sky began. Then there were the meres, as varying as the heath itself.'

Father and son writers - John and Colin Middleton Murry - who lived at Larling - were also influenced by the region. In his autobiography One Hand Clapping, Colin Middleton Murry records how he once got lost on a school trip to Grime's Graves. Grime's Graves is the site of an important Neolithic flint mine and today has a strange, pock-marked surface.

In fact, Breckland still has a palpable sense of early human settlers  - as was noted by W.G.Clarke in his In Breckland Wilds (1937).

'Here we feel in touch with man in his early days, with all that is primitive and prehistoric....the heathland road on which one may wander for mile after mile without seeing any human being, seems as though its only fitting user would be a skin-clad hunter with his flint-tipped arrows.'

One of the most famous writers from the area was Thomas Paine - the political radical whose works were extremely influential in France, America and England. There is a statue of him in King Street in Thetford - the town where he was born and educated. Michael Foot (MP) described Paine as 'the greatest exile that has ever left England's shores'.

The poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) was born in the village of Kenninghall in Kenninghall Palace - the remains of which are now part of Place Farm. Henry Howard was one of the pioneers of the sonnet in English poetry.

However, the Brecks is probably best remembered today for its links with the TV sitcom Dad's Army. Between 1967 and 1977 the cast and crew used to travel up to Thetford and stay in The Anchor or Bell Hotels and much of the exterior filming for the series was carried out in and around Thetford, Thetford Forest or on the Stanford Battle area. In fact, Thetford Guildhall was transformed into the Walmington-on-Sea town hall. Councillors in Thetford are currently considering erecting a statue of Capt. Mainwaring to commemorate the town's links with the much loved comedy series. See Norfolk Film and TV Locations.





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