Out & About
Into the wild
Jade Soanes explores the beauty of the Brecks
This month we’re shining a light on this little-known pocket of East Anglia. Often overlooked in favour of the coast, the Brecks’ distinctive landscape is characterised by its vibrant purple heathland and the gnarled scots pines of Thetford Forest. Spanning an area of nearly 400 sq. miles and encompassing pre-historic towns and chocolate-box villages, home to an array of rare wildlife and as one of the driest places in the country, it’s an ideal place for a day out this autumn half term.
Things to see and do:
St George’s Distillery
Home to The English Whisky Co., St George’s Distillery has become part of Norfolk’s heritage, being the oldest whisky distiller in England. Founded by the Nelstrop family in 2006, the site is perfectly suited to its purpose of creating fine whiskies: the surrounding countryside produces some of the world’s best barley, coupled with the Breckland aquifer, found 50ft beneath the distillery, which provides plenty of crystal-clear water.
The distillery matures all its casks and bottles its whisky on site, and has won a multitude of awards in recent years. Take a guided tour round the gleaming copper stills to learn more about the distilling process – culminating in a tasting of course! – or simply have a browse round the shop to stock up your alcohol cupboard ahead of the festive season.
Brandon Country Park
Open heathland, vast forests and heaps of fresh air, Brandon Country Park is the heart of the Brecks. Located within Thetford Forest and boasting over 30 acres of parkland, there’s plenty for the whole family to discover here. From seasonal trails, lawns and lakes to a ‘haunted’ mausoleum, historic walled garden and tearoom, as well as miles of nature trails and cycling routes, there’s no better reason to pop on your walking boots and pack a picnic.
For active early risers, the park also plays host to Parkrun every Saturday at 9am – this 5km trot is a great way of kickstarting your weekend in beautiful surroundings, and, in less socially-distanced times, often ends with a post-run coffee at the The Copper Beech Tearooms.
Go Ape, Thetford
Where the Go Ape story first began, it’s easy to see why this is the country’s favourite forest attraction. Get your adventure fix in a variety of ways: either swinging through the trees, tackling wobbly crossings and whizzing down enormous zip wires – all up to 40ft off the forest floor – or, for those not keen on ascending to those heights, hop on an all-terrain electric Segway for a unique way to explore the forest off the beaten track. Alternatively, simply watch others playing Tarzan and enjoy the sights and sounds among the pine trees on one of the walking or cycling routes – there is also a café, renowned play area and even an archery course on site.
West Stow Anglo Saxon Village
One of England’s great archaeological sites, this carefully reconstructed Anglo-Saxon Village has indoor galleries and houses to explore, and, on special exhibition days, the chance to meet Saxon characters and their livestock.
West Stow is the site of an early Anglo-Saxon village, occupied from roughly AD 420-650. The reconstructed village consists of eight fascinating buildings – visitors can wander the houses and workshop, watch a film to learn more, play dress up and say hello to the rare breed pigs and chickens.
There is also a surrounding country park holding 125 acres of unspoilt trails, heath and woodland walks. Head to the bird hides or bird feeding area to see the wildlife this area is home to, or take a stroll around the lake, soaking in the peace and quiet before heading back to the madness of modern times.
Widely acknowledged as one of the best examples of a medieval wool town and one of Suffolk’s most idyllic Breckland villages, Lavenham is home to a collection of delightfully crooked 15th-century, half-timbered houses. Once the fourteenth wealthiest town in England, the quaint village has a chequered history and many stories to tell. Visit the old Guildhall overlooking the market square, now maintained by the National Trust, marvel at the spectacularly large St Peter & St Paul Church, built in the village’s hey-day, and stop for a browse in one of the twee art galleries. Harry Potter fans will of course make a beeline for the De Vere House, which was used as the location for Harry’s birthplace in the films.
Bury St Edmunds Abbey
Once one of the richest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England, the abbey was founded in 1020 and steadily grew in wealth and power until its suppression in 1539. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 lockdown put a halt to many of the planned celebrations of its 1,000-year birthday this summer.
Throughout the abbey’s history, pilgrims came from around the world to see the shrine of martyred East Anglian king St Edmund, whose remains were moved to this site in 903. Ironically, St Edmund became the patron saint of pandemic – fitting, eh!
The abbey’s remains, impressive despite being mostly in ruins, are extensive and well worth a stroll around – look out for the imposing 14th century Great Gate and Norman Tower.
Shopping, eating and wine – is there a better combo? Venture through Wyken’s seven acre, south-facing vineyard, the surrounding woodland and formal garden to work up an appetite before sitting down at its renowned restaurant, The Leaping Hare. As you would expect, it offers a fabulous selection of wines, fresh from the vine. The vineyard produces an average of 12,000 bottles of wine a year, including a number of award-winners – Moonshine, a sparkling wine, won ‘The East Anglian Wine of the Year’ in 2017.
For the shopping segment, the onsite country store offers a delightful selection of carefully curated products – the book room boasts a selection from small, specialist publishers, and elsewhere you’ll find everything from log baskets and dog beds to chic clothing.
During October half term there’ll be some spooky goings-on at Banham, with all the usual fun of the zoo plus a few additional Halloween-themed activities. This is a perfect day out for animal lovers of all ages – whether you visit for a sighting of the tigers, leopards, giraffes, monkeys or our personal favourite – the meerkats. Travel the world in an afternoon: in the South America themed subtropical house you’ll find sloths, birds and reptiles; while the black-footed penguin colony offer a taste of Africa’s coast. Daily animal feeding talks and ‘Amazing Animals!’ presentations are fun and informative, while the free Safari Road Train provides an easy way of getting around if little feet get tired.
Dad’s Army Museum
A must-visit for fans of the popular BBC comedy series, this quirky museum is located in Cage Lane in Thetford; many of the outdoor scenes for the show were filmed in the surrounding local area. Housed in the old fire station at the rear of Thetford Guildhall, which itself featured in several episodes, the museum was opened in 2007 and is run by dedicated volunteers. Inside you’ll find a reconstruction of Captain Mainwaring’s church hall office, several display areas, a shop and the Marigold Tea Room. The museum’s displays include many unique photographs (many from the collection of the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society) along with other memorabilia and even replica uniforms from the beloved series.
This atmospheric, 15th-century red-brick house is uniquely encircled by a wide moat that it’s hard not to be impressed by. Built by the Bedingfeld family in 1482 as a statement of power and prestige, it remains their family home today. Inside, the Victorian Gothic decor and a range of exhibits tell the story of the Hall’s turbulent past – don’t miss the needlework by Mary Queen of Scots and the priest’s hiding hole in the library. Outside the more formal walled garden and the Parterre (or French Garden) are offset with wilderness areas and an estate walk through woodland and along the River Gadder – keep your eyes peeled for the resident otters. The house, gardens and parkland are all currently open – please book your visit in advance.
The UK’s largest man-made lowland forest, Thetford offers 18,730 hectares to walk, cycle and explore. Head into the quiet patchwork of pines, firs and heathland and leave the outside world behind. The park provides a refuge for a rich variety of animal and plant life and can be explored from any of the picnic sites scattered across the forest. High Lodge Forest Centre and its ever-expanding range of recreation facilities is a great base to start from. There is a selection of walking routes that start and finish here, including the Nature Trail, which leads you on a flat path through the woods to a wildlife spotting hide; and an accessible Heritage Trail which explores the hidden history of the area.
When was the last time you tried something for the first time? Explore 4×4 are outdoor activity specialists that have a base in the adventure playground of Thetford Forest. The exhilarating activities and experiences the team offers range from clay pigeon shooting, 4×4 off road driving, archery and even axe throwing! Alternatively, for the even less faint-hearted, Military Adventures present the chance to learn new skills and put your abilities to the test with mini bootcamps, assault courses and outdoor survival challenges.
The team of experienced instructors, the majority of whom have a background in the military or police, will ensure you have a day out like no other.
A wholesome family-friendly day out, Gressenhall combines a historic Victorian workhouse, museum and traditional farm. Find out about the tools, trades and lives of generations of Norfolk residents, meet the distinctive Suffolk Punch heavy horse, take a cart ride around the real working farm and see a recreation of a 1930s cottage and old village shops from days gone by. Relax in the delightful gardens and orchards while the kids let off steam in the adventure playground. If you’re feeling peckish, head to The Mardlers’ Rest café, which serves tempting homemade meals and snacks.
Mid Norfolk Railway
This 15-mile preserved heritage railway is one of the longest in the UK and regular steam and diesel services run through the centre of Norfolk between the market towns of Wymondham and Dereham via Yaxham, Thuxton, Kimberley Park and Worthing. Although a wonderful day out in its own right, the Mid Norfolk Railway also hosts special events – including festive favourite, The Polar Express. Following the popularity of this magical event in previous years, the railway hopes to be able to run this experience again in December.
The magic of the 2004 film is theatrically re-created during the journey, so you and your family can be immersed in the sights, sounds and intrigue of this classic children’s tale, including a special visit from Santa himself.
Gooderstone Water Gardens
A favourite attraction among garden lovers and the green-fingered, as well as those wanting a peaceful escape into nature. In 1970, retired farmer Billy Knights began designing and creating the gardens at the ripe old age of 70. The enchanting six-acre garden has since been open for the public to enjoy for 20 years, and consists of a natural trout stream, ponds and flowing waterways spanned by thirteen numbered bridges. There are also mature trees and shrubs, colourful borders, a Kingfisher hide where there are regular sightings, a nature trail and a tearoom in the grounds. A variety of plants are available for sale to inspire visitors to create their own horticultural masterpiece back home in their own garden.
With such a diverse landscape, there’s always something different to see on a stroll in the Brecks. It’s especially picturesque at this time of year, with the splendid autumn colours of the changing leaves and wild gorse-strewn heathland. Take a local route or follow an ancient pathway such as the Peddars Way and see what you discover.
Long Distance Routes:
- Peddars Way & Norfolk Coast Path National Trail – A quarter of this accessible route lies within the Brecks, starting at Knettishall Heath through to Holme-next-the-Sea.
- The Icknield Way Path – Knettishall Heath to the Berkshire Ridgeway, via the Chilterns.
- Angles Way – The ‘Broads to the Brecks’ path, linking Knettishall Heath with Great Yarmouth.
- Iceni Way – Knettishall Heath to Holme-next-the-Sea via Brandon and the Fens.
- The Little Ouse Path- A gentle, meandering valley walk, the whole route is off-road.
- The Weeting Village Trail – Circular route visiting some of the local points of interest.
- Aspal Close – Local nature reserve with wheelchair accessible path leading from the car park.
- Brandon Riverside Walks – Footpaths near the Little Ouse.
- Cockley Cley Lake – Lakeside nature trail.
- The Great Eastern Pingo Trail – Thompson and Hockham area, including Peddars Way and Thompson Common Nature Reserve.
- Knettishall Heath Country Park – Four waymarked trails through heathland, woodland and riverside.
- The Lark Valley Path – Bury St Edmunds to Mildenhall.
With a handy mix of easy-going routes for the whole family, to daredevil off-road routes for thrill seekers, the Brecks is in the heart of cycling country. With the benefit of mainly flat roads with little traffic, there’s a trail for every ability. If you don’t have your own wheels or struggle transporting them, there are a number of cycle hire companies dotted around that can provide you with everything you need for a day in the saddle.
- National Cycle Network Route 13 Sustrans – Route 13 passes through The Brecks between Watton and Thetford connecting to cycle route 1.
- The Brecks Cycling Discovery Route – This 20-mile circular route takes in the Georgian market town of Swaffham and Oxburgh Hall. There is a 10-mile shortcut if you’re shorter on time.
- Thetford Forest – There are three trails from High Lodge Visitor Centre. Brandon Country Park and High Lodge loops are both 6.5 miles long; the Black Route is 8 miles one way.
- Swaffham Bridle Route – This 21-mile route passes through the rolling farmland around Swaffham. It is mainly on tracks and minor roads.
The diverse landscape of the Brecks provides a natural larder of incredible local produce, including root crops, fresh fish, traditional breeds of livestock such as Redpoll cattle and Norfolk Horn sheep, and most significantly, bountiful game. The annual Brecks Food & Drink Festival takes place every September and aims to educate and re-connect us to the area’s rural food and drink offering – providing plenty of delicious samples of course! There are a huge number of producers within the Brecks that use these local ingredients to make everything from ice cream and cider to cakes, fudge and even spice kits – not to mention the countless fresh fruit and vegetables that are picked, packed and sold within a few miles of your dinner table. Discover more about the Brecks and its food trails at www.brecks.org