Norfolk: Breckland


Breckland is an area in the south west of Norfolk, extending into Suffolk, which contains much forest and heath land. For a present-day description, see below, and also look at the web pages about individual places, starting at the Norfolk: Towns and Parishes page.

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Copyright © Pat Newby.
December 1998

Description of Breckland

[Description copyright © Paddy Apling, who lives in the area.]

The term "Breckland" means an area only cropped occasionally (breaks).

I suppose the term is a little ambiguous, especially because Breckland DC is now a district council of Norfolk, centred on Dereham, Thetford, Attleborough and Swaffham.

However, the way I and most locals use the term Breckland is to cover an area which to quote the old archeologist W.G. Clarke ("In Breckland Wilds", 1925 - or 2nd edition by R Rainbird Clarke, 1937):

comprises about 400 square miles, of which 253 are in south-west Norfolk, and about 145 in north-west Suffolk, extending from Narborough on the north to Culford and Mildenhall in the south, from East Harling and Garboldisham on the east to Lakenheath and Feltwell on the west. The only towns within the area are Thetford, Brandon, Mildenhall and Swaffham, and it is less densely populated than any district between the Pennines and the New Forest.

Those who have been there will recall seeing the wryly shaped Scots pines at the edges of the roads and spreading in lines across the landscape at intervals, and these "hedged" Scots pines in practice define the area of Breckland, although now much of the area is covered by the forestry plantations of Thetford Forest. They were planted as windbreaks, probably in the late 18th/early 19th century, to stop the light soil from blowing. (A farmer is quoted as answering when asked if his farm was in Norfolk or Suffolk - tha' depens which wa' tha winds a-blowin' - and the village of Santon Downham was almost completely covered by sand-blow in 1688).

The Normans used the area for rabbit warrens (Thetford Warren Lodge still exists on the Thetford to Brandon Road - and oddly the Norman Lord of much of the area was the Earl de Warenne), but the area was evidently comparatively highly populated in pre-historic times - neolithic flint mines at Grimes Graves, between West Tofts and Brandon, pre-historic graves and cooking places all over the area.

The meres (or lakes) in the area are notable for often being dry in wet seasons and full in dry, as the water comes from the underlying chalk strata. Breckland has probably the lowest rainfall of anywhere in Britain, and certainly is the nearest thing to a desert we have.

The central part of the region, in the triangle between the roads from Thetford to Mundford and Norwich, and a little north of the road from Bodney to Watton has since 1942 been a military training area, and is still mainly heath as it has been for several centuries. The area is renowned for its distinct flora and fauna - some of its birds and plants are extremely rare outside Breckland (and the wildlife is not at all bothered by the firing!!!).

Other Information

Description and Travel

Clarke, William George
In Breckland wilds.
[1st edition: London; Robert Scott, 1925]
[2nd edition: (revised and re-written by R. Rainbird Clarke) Cambridge; Heffer, 1937]
Cook, Olive
[2nd ed., London; Hale, 1980]
Mason, H.J. and McClelland, A.
Background to Breckland.

Economic History and Conditions

Bailey, Mark
A marginal economy ? East Anglian Breckland in the later Middle Ages.

Social History and Conditions

Home, Michael
Autumn fields.
[3rd ed., London; Methuen, 1946]
Home, Michael
Spring sowing.
[London; Methuen, 1946]