Swaffham in the Brecks
Swaffham is one of the small Brecks market towns which grew during Norfolk's wealthy medieval agricultural past. Dominated by a huge church, most of the Georgian and Victorian facades hide medieval houses. In its heyday there were theatres, assembly rooms, pleasure gardens and a racecourse and Lady Nelson preferred to live here because the Burnham’s in North Norfolk were too quiet! The town itself sits on a slight rise, elevating Swaffham's two wind turbines and giving visitors a glimpse from afar. Traditionally the town was recognised as having health benefits as visitors came to ‘take the air’.
Historically Swaffham was a stopping point for pilgrims going to Walsingham and a funnel for travellers going south from the Norfolk coast towards neighbouring Suffolk and London. It was also the main market for goods and travellers east and west, from King’s Lynn to Norwich and the Norfolk Broads.
Today, you no longer need to hire a guide to take you west through the Fenland landscape but the old drove roads remain giving unique access to quiet countryside. Peddars Way, the old Roman road, runs north to south through Swaffham linking up the Icknield Way and is now a long distance footpath to the coast. Both the theatre and race course closed in the 1840's but it is now possible to enjoy the theatre at West Acre and gamble at the racecourse in Fakenham.
The Breckland landscape and the area to the North have been more densely populated in the past, so have left us a legacy of abandoned villages, hidden castles, remote round barrows and an excess of churches. The area is rich in wildlife including rare species like the stone curlew, which can be viewed at Weeting Heath.
The town’s famous eclectic Saturday market reveals treasures among the bric-a-brac and book stalls, fresh local produce and greengrocery, a wide variety of cheese and eggs and the popular auction opposite the market cross, itself adorned with the statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest. The twice monthly farmer's market adds to the attraction of the town.
The Brecks area is a truly unique landscape, which contains some unusual features whose origins go back to the Ice Ages, like Pingo ponds. After Neolithic man cleared the natural forest with axes fashioned from flints mined in the area, heath land developed. In the past the Brecks was an open landscape of sheep walk, rabbit warren and breck (temporary fields allowed to revert back to heath) abounding with heath land wildlife. Within the forestry another English Heritage site from 3000BC, the Anglo Saxons believed that the Neolithic Flint mines of Grimes Graves were the work of their chief god Grim.
The heaths developed on areas of poor soil with fragile fertility. Burning, grazing, arable farming, turf cutting and harvesting of furze and bracken have helped create and maintain them. On these ancient heaths rabbits were farmed from medieval times for several centuries, in warrens, until they became a major pest. Two minutes outside the town on the old drove road over Swaffham Heath leads you to Beachamwell Warren, one of the many warrens in the vicinity that reflects this historical association with rabbits and offers great walking opportunities. On the same stroll or jog you will see deer (red, roe, fallow, muntjak) and hares.
Now the Brecks is mostly a landscape of forestry and farming. Thetford forest, which is spread across an area of about 80 square miles, is the largest lowland pine forest in Britain. It was started in the 1920's as a strategic timber reserve and is now home for endangered wildlife such as red squirrel, woodlark and nightjar and very accessible. By far the most characteristic symbols of this countryside are the hedges and shelter belts of Scots pines planted as wind breaks at the time of Enclosure from 1768 onwards to stop the precious topsoil from blowing away. They line the roads and edges of the fields, their branches and trunks twisted by age and the elements.