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Exploring Thompson Common

BFER Blogging Volunteer Edward took a wintery walk at Thompson Common, exploring the site and its wonderful wildlife. Read about his experience here.

Thompson Common doesn’t stay put. Every animal, every tree, shrub, flower, mushroom, and pond, is shooting outward, upward, crisscrossing, expanding here, contracting there. It isn’t just transitioning from one ecosystem to another: it’s many different ecosystems, all evolving into something else, and all mingling. There’s a dynamism in this little reserve that you rarely get anywhere in Britain.

I’ve timed my visit well. The sky is clear and sunny. But it’s not the blue sky of summer. It’s a bleached white sun, giving off solar radiation but no warmth. A cold sun, set in an unsaturated blue sky that feels empty rather than enveloping, and accompanied by a piercing cold. It’s dry and crisp now, but there’s clearly been a downpour lately, and in the sharp sunlight all the branches and leaves have a silver sheen.

First impressions

My first impressions going into Thompson Common are of an all-encompassing gloom, and constantly having to push branches back from my face. The latter is part and parcel of any walk in the woods, but I’m doing it a lot more here. Tangles of holly and alder sprawl in every direction, snagged in each other’s branches. They’re jostling for space on every patch of ground, even those they already occupy. Space is a critical resource here, and the trees are being pushed as far as they can to obtain it. In between an alder and a holly is a silver birch. The only way it can find some room is to keep growing upwards, until it’s as tall as an oak. All these trees packed trunk-to-trunk cast the rest of the forest in shade. It brings a tinge of danger to walking through the woods. It’s something I’ve rarely felt in a British woodland before, and never one this small. In the gloom, I can imagine something hiding behind the trees.

Instead, there’s a pingo pool.

Pingo Ponds

During the last Ice Age, glaciation caused the water table under this land to freeze. The result was an underground ice sheet. When this melted the soil above collapsed, creating a landscape pockmarked with circular ponds. Thanks to the rains, they’re lapping at the tree trunks and making the ground below me much looser. The rest of the terrain is similarly disorderly. The path isn’t even the packed-earth sort you usually get in other outdoors nature reserves. All sorts of vegetation are growing across it. Dead wood hasn’t been tidied away here; it’s been allowed to stand and rot. There’s an abundance of natural processes going on at Thompson Common, with nothing impeding them. It almost feels- what’s that special word- wild.

The canopy opens out onto rough pasture. The common is still riddled with pingos, but now there’s a bit more space between them. The soil has had the opportunity to dry out a bit, and so grass has had the opportunity to take seed here. And the grass has been followed by scrub-thickets of roses, hawthorn, and brambles.

Just like the woodland, the scrub is branching in every direction. Some patches keep low to the ground. Others branch up: a patch of dog rose has formed another canopy, but one only slightly taller than me. And poking through the scrub are oak, birch, rowan, and alder. Grassland, scrubland, and woodland aren’t in designated areas. Instead they’re all together, interspersed with one another.

Because of this, there isn’t a clear direction to go, as is often the case elsewhere. Taking a walk around the pasture becomes a case of going in any direction and seeing where I end up. In doing so, I find myself instinctively slowing down.


As crowded with nature as the common is, it’s also tranquil. It’s a warm day, but there’s no sign of motion. No bubbles on the pingos’ surfaces, no flutters of insect wings, even the birdsong is weaker. There’s an overwhelming sense of winding down for Winter. All there is to do is take in the landscape around me. My attention isn’t darting from place to place, but casually moving across the scenery. I’m not focusing on anything, just taking in my surroundings. I can easily imagine that I’ve stumbled into a world where humans never existed.

Norfolk is a fluid landscape. No place is just a heath, a bog, a fen, or a woodland. These ecosystems, and the wildlife they support, are constantly spilling into each other. When they do, they bring new, unique habitats, with niches found nowhere else. New niches are coming and going constantly, as the landscape continues to shift and change, as all landscapes do when we aren’t making them stay as one thing.

Thompson Common has given nature room to breathe. In doing so, it gives people room to breathe, slow down, and experience how nature should be.

Edward Grierson, BFER Blogging Volunteer


Thompson Common is is a site of Special Scientific Interest located north of Thetford in Norfolk. Much of the site is managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Find out more about the site and its wildlife HERE.

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