10 reasons to love the Norfolk Brecks

PUBLISHED: 11:13 11 March 2020 | UPDATED: 11:13 11 March 2020

The Household Cavalry training on the beach at Holkham, The Breckland landscape and trees near East Wretham (photo: Ian Burt)

The Household Cavalry training on the beach at Holkham, The Breckland landscape and trees near East Wretham (photo: Ian Burt)

Flint, rabbits, pingos, extravagantly decorated and deserted churches, Neanderthals, heathland and holidaying horses - there’s lots to love about the Brecks

1. Revolutionary Rev

Magnificent Carbrooke church towers over meadows. The view is calm and serene - but it wasn't always so. Carbrooke was the centre of a political and religious storm in the 1930s when the much-loved vicar, the Rev George Chambers, commissioned a new crucifix for his church - complete with a hammer and sickle. Well-known for his Christian socialist views he claimed the hammer and sickle were Christian symbols, the hammer representing Jesus' work as a carpenter and the sickle mentioned in the book of Revelation. That might have been news to many communists, particularly those who felt religion was the opium of the people. George was vicar of Carbrooke from 1927 until 1955 and an expert on folk music as well as a social activist. He is quoted as saying: 'I have admired the Russian way of life ever since I saw their folk dances.'

Carbrooke church was founded in 1193 as England's church for the 'Commanderie of the Knights Hospitallers' or the Order of St John, which had its headquarters in Jerusalem and was founded to look after sick pilgrims to the Holy Land. Vicars of Carbrooke were known as commanders until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s and the church is still associated with St John Ambulance.

St Peter and St Paul's Church in Carbrooke (photo: Matthew Usher)St Peter and St Paul's Church in Carbrooke (photo: Matthew Usher)

2. Hockham horns and clod hoppers

The Great Hockham Horn Fair has been held since 1272. Once a sheep would have been killed and its horn paraded through the streets, as part of the festivities. Today's fairs include crafts and stalls, maypole dancing, classic cars and molly dancing from the Hockham Clod Hoppers.

A friendly local at Wretham Nature Reserve (photo: Bob Chalmers)A friendly local at Wretham Nature Reserve (photo: Bob Chalmers)

3. Many churchwardens

The village pub, The Twenty Churchwardens, was created from the old village school, alongside Cockley Cley church, and named for the 10 churches served by the same priest - each with two churchwardens. Today the church, minus its tower, which collapsed one dramatic night in August 1991, is part of a group of five churches, but the popular pub has retained all its churchwardens.

West Tofts church with its Pugin screen (photo: Adrian Judd)West Tofts church with its Pugin screen (photo: Adrian Judd)

4. Wretham rams and rabbits

Norfolk's wonderful village signs often reveal the folktales, natural history and history of the community. At Wretham the sign includes a ram's head, a chovy (the Norfolk name for the maybug or cockchafer which was common around the village) partridges, and a witch.

Stories of witchcraft continued in Wretham into the 19th century. The ram is from the ancient Wretham custom of the Norman Lord of the Manor (actually an abbey in France) leaving an acre of barley for the people of the village at the end of the harvest, and letting loose a ram inside it. If villagers caught the ram they could have that too, but if it escaped it was the abbey's. Centuries later Eton college owned the estate and continued the custom into the 18th century.

East Wretham Heath is home to a lot of internationally important wildlife, including the chovies, thick-kneed, goggle-eyed stone curlews, and rabbits. The grazing and burrowing bunnies have shaped the landscape since they were introduced to the Brecks by the Normans almost 1,000 years ago. The sandy soil was ideal for rabbit farming, with the animals kept in warrens for their meat and fur. But numbers have been falling in recent decades so a new project is encouraging rabbits to breed like, well, rabbits.

Wretham had an airfield during the Second World War. Czech airmen were based here from 1940-1942 and then an RAF bomber squadron flew from Wretham on missions into Germany and occupied France and Italy, before the US Air Force arrived in 1943. After the war the airfield became a resettlement camp for Polish refugees and then part of the British Army's Stanford Practical Training Area (also known as STANTA).

The Household Cavalry training on the beach at Holkham, The Breckland landscape and trees near East Wretham (photo: Ian Burt)The Household Cavalry training on the beach at Holkham, The Breckland landscape and trees near East Wretham (photo: Ian Burt)

5. Splendid gothic isolation

In almost any other village it would attract people from around the world, but West Tofts church with its glorious screen, elaborate chapel and tombs and walls covered in colourful painting and stencils, is rarely seen as it stands on the battle training area, requisitioned by the Army in 1942. Everyone was moved out of a huge expanse of the Brecks, including the villages of West Tofts, Buckenham Tofts, Langford, Stanford, Sturston and Tottington. Many people believed they would be able to return to their homes after the war but almost eight decades on the land is still a huge military training area. The medieval church at West Tofts was transformed into a remarkable Gothic fantasy by Augustus Pugin, the 19th century architect and artist most famous for his work at the Houses of Parliament. A Christmas carol service is held here every year and on the evening of Wednesday July 15 The Horatio Singers will sing mass in the church.

The Breckland landscape and trees near East Wretham (photo: Denise Bradley)The Breckland landscape and trees near East Wretham (photo: Denise Bradley)

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6. Horsing about

Every year the horses of the Household Cavalry enjoy a holiday at Bodney, near Swaffham. Most of the year they are in London, ready to perform at state visits, royal birthdays and weddings.

But in Norfolk they enjoy trips to Holkham beach with their riders, the soldiers of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. The summer break is not just a holiday - the horses and soldiers who are part of the Queen's official bodyguard and like her, are normally based in London, are training hard too as they gallop along the sands or into the surf.

7. Neanderthal

Lynford is the most important Neanderthal site in the country. Lynford Quarry, just a mile from the 5,000 year old flint mines of Grimes Graves, is one of only two sites on mainland Britain which has evidence of Neanderthal occupation. Black flint hand axes and the remains of nine woolly mammoths butchered an astonishing 65,000 years ago were found here.

8. Fowl

Relax, people of Foulden, there is nothing foul here. The name of this Brecks village comes from 'fowl' and means the hill of birds.

9. Pingos

At the end of the last ice age mounds of ice grew every winter and melted in the summer. These are pingos, from the Eskimo word for hill. Every winter the expanding ice shrugged off more earth to form a rim for the lakes which remain scattered across the Brecks. The Great Eastern Pingo Trail is eight miles of disused railway and paths linking the commons of Thompson and Stow Bedon, heathland of Breckles and Great Hockham. Most pingo ponds in the UK have been ploughed up and lost but three systems remain in the Brecks with Thompson Common the best place to admire them.

10. Broken

The Brecks are named for the medieval word breck, from broken, referring to the stretches of land which had been used for farming but were abandoned when the sandy soil was exhausted.

Today the Brecks of south Norfolk and north Suffolk are one of the lesser-known landscapes of Britain - but hide a wealth of history and natural history. Look out for the UK's only inland sand dunes and the rows of twisted Scots pines which were originally planted as hedges to stop precious topsoil blowing away.

The battle training area, established in the 1940s, has not only helped Britain's armed forces, but has also helped plants and animals battling against extinction, including 25 species of amphibian. Rare wild plants include tower mustard, fingered speedwell, Breckland thyme and (fittingly) the military orchid.

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