Travelling through the Brecks was a regular part of my childhood, taking the long drive from Bury St Edmunds through Thetford, on to Swaffham and beyond. We didn’t call it the Brecks — it was the forest — a blank canvas, empty of people and with very little traffic. We rarely stopped but saw from the car window tunnels of trees stretching ahead, sometimes dark and misty, sometimes dancing in early autumn sunlight. Occasionally we glimpsed a red squirrel, sadly no longer part of this landscape. Once we explored the underground flint mines before health and safety capped them off to visitors. To a child nurtured in rolling farmland and Norfolk coastlines, this was an alien land. Beyond the road lurked secrets. It felt even more alien when we encountered the American bases, the miles of wire, the tumuli of arsenals, the left-hand drive jeeps that barrelled past us.
Now, running the Sandlines writing project, I have discovered a different place. Our workshops have taken us into the heart of the forest to explore long tracts of heathland haunted by stone curlew, tumbled meadows, flint-faced churches and poignant gravestones. We have learned that this seemingly barren desert of trees and sand harbours a rich wildlife and an even richer history. I have followed the story of glaciers retreating, ancient people arriving, flints being knapped, rabbits nurtured, sands drowning settlements and then man taking more control, planting trees, creating parks and preparing for war. Perhaps the Brecks’ biggest secret is its rivers. We have walked along the Thet, the Little Ouse and the Lark and discovered jewels of insect life, a chorus of bird song and bright chuckling waters. In such a dry sandy landscape, the rivers channel life and laughter into the heart of the forest.
First published in the newsletter of Breaking New Ground 2015