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Getting to Know the Brecks

Writer, Sandra Walmsley on life in Weeting and getting to know her adoptive home.

Photo credit: Alan J Rodwell

If you look on a map of Eastern England, at the bulge into the North Sea that is East Anglia, you will see a patch of green; Thetford Forest, the largest lowland forest in Britain. I moved to Weeting, on the edge of the forest, 28 years ago. Over the 25 years I lived there, before moving to Norwich, I came to know and love the Brecks, an undervalued and almost unique habitat whose only equivalent are the barren Russian Steppes.

Weeting is a village on the boundary of Norfolk and Suffolk with about 2000 inhabitants. The village itself has four claims to fame.

Probably best known is the annual Steam Rally. For a few days in mid-July, steam rollers toot as they trundle along the main road to the pub. The loud music of the Gallopers floats across, as the brightly painted  horses of the old roundabout prance their endless circle. Shiny faced men and small children dressed in dirty overalls with grimy faces stroll around the fields. Huge Suffolk Punches display their brushed and plaited tresses and shiny brasses. Thousands of people come to watch vintage vehicles parade and steam powered saws slice huge tree trunks as the smell of sawn wood fights against the pervasive smell of smoke.

Mostly known to keen bird watchers, Weeting Heath; a nature reserve owned by Norfolk Wildlife Trust, is famed for the Stone Curlews which nest there. Spotting the strange looking, ground nesting birds, with round yellow and black target-like eyes is difficult. Their mottled feathers camouflage them against the dry, spikey grassland. They are classified as amber in the UK list of birds of conservation concern but, determined efforts by wildlife groups helps them keep their tenuous grasp. Thanks to careful  management with a local landowner, the reserve is also home to many of the unique Breckland flora. The vivid blue Spiked Speedwell is probably the best known.

Weeting Castle is sometimes mentioned, fleetingly, in travel books. This flint and stone ruin, standing proud on a grass mound, was actually a fortified manor house built in 1180 for Ralph de Plaiz. Most visitors to the castle now are dog walkers and, at night, teenagers.

Within a mile of the village, a better known historic site owned by English Heritage, is Grimes Graves. Misnamed, as it was originally assumed to be a graveyard, it has been described as the oldest industrial site in the world, dating from neolithic times. Flints, which emerge from the chalk ground whenever you choose to dig locally, were mined here for the creation of tools and weapons. They are strange rounded rocks with neutral-coloured opaque surfaces which, when split, reveal semi- transparent shiny faces in shades of black and grey. It is thought that the fashioned artefacts were traded throughout Europe. The flints for pistols were certainly traded until the mid 20th century. The Flintknappers pub, in nearby Brandon, bears witness to this ancient craft as do local buildings such as Brandon railway station: each stone in its walls is squared off, creating patterned surfaces. Unfortunately, the station is not deemed important enough to preserve for either practical or  historic purposes, despite a long-running battle by local residents.

At Grimes Graves itself, climbing down the rusted metal ladders into the damp,  excavated, moss patterned shafts to the mines beneath is a reminder of how long the Brecks has been inhabited. Humans settled here in the Paleolithic era. Above ground, the barren heathland is home to more Breckland flora as well as some of the periglacial land patterns which make the geology so remarkable.

I knew nothing about the Brecks when I settled in Breckland. My knowledge  grew over the years as I discovered the diversity of my adopted home.

Little of Britain remains as it was before human habitation. The Brecks is no exception. Its human, geological and climate history have created a cornucopia of different environments. Each one is rare and fascinating.