What's in the local area?
Hockwold is situated right on the western edge of Breckland, with some parts lying in the Fens
Until the late eighteenth century Breckland was a sparsely populated region characterized by open heaths inhabited mostly by rabbits and sheep. Its dry, sandy soil blew up into frequent sandstorms, and contemporary accounts describe it as an "absolute desert". Nowadays, the name survives as an administrative and political district but the heath itself has all but disappeared through the creation of Thetford Forest in the 1920s, and of the so-called "battle area", established in 1940, which destroyed five villages and thousands of acres of farmland to make way for the largest concentration of military air bases in the country.
Breckland's chief town is THETFORD, birthplace of the radical eighteenth-century ideologue Thomas Paine, and, way back in the eleventh century, seat of the kings and bishops of East Anglia. It's a comely place, with riverside walks and gardens, though the remains of the Cluniac priory and the giant earthworks of Castle Hill – at opposite ends of the pedestrianized town centre – are the only reminders of the town's former importance. Paine, for years disowned by his native town, is now honoured with a striking gilt statue paid for by the Thomas Paine Foundation of America. This stands on King Street, just outside St Peter's church (Thurs and Fri 10am–noon; free), which now doubles as the town's history museum.
Thetford Forest is also a stones throw away...
The biggest change affecting the Breckland has been the creation of Thetford Forest, eighty thousand acres planted with unerring regularity in the 1920s. Realizing the error of their ways, the Forestry Commission (FC) is currently engaged in more imaginative replanting, and has laid out several forest walks, wildlife hides and other recreational facilities to try and entice people to come here. Call in at High Lodge Forest Centre (Easter–Sept daily 10am–5pm; rest of the year weekends only 11am–4pm; £2 toll for cars; 01842/810 271), off the B1107 east of Brandon, where you can pick up a trail map or rent bikes to get you around the forest.
On the northwestern edge of Breckland, seven miles southwest of Swaffham off the A134, stands the National Trust owned Oxburgh Hall (Easter–Oct Sat–Wed 1–5pm; gardens open at 11am; £5.30, gardens only £2.60), built in 1482 by the Bedingfeld family, whose staunch Catholicism never faltered throughout the turbulent times of the Reformation. The approach to the hall is via an eighty-foot-high ceremonial gateway, matched by the main gate tower of the house itself. The exterior is wonderful – an archetypal medieval manor house, surrounded by a moat strewn with water-lilies, its dappled brickwork exuding warmth. The most exquisite Bedingfeld legacy – the family's sixteenth-century terracotta tomb – is just outside the grounds of the hall in the partly ruined parish church. Check out the Priest's Hole also!!
Other Local Towns/Cities
Ely began its life as a seventh-century Benedictine abbey built on the Isle of Ely, a rare patch of upland in the soggy fens. Until the draining of the fens in the seventeenth century, this was to all intents and purposes a true island – the name Ely means "eel island" – surrounded by treacherous marshland, accessible only with the aid of "fen-slodgers" who knew the terrain. Under Hereward the Wake, the island became a centre of Anglo-Saxon rebellion, holding out against the Norman invaders until 1071. To mark their victory, the Normans constructed a new "ship of the fens", a towering structure visible for miles across the flat landscape. With a population of less than ten thousand, Ely has changed very little since medieval times, and the cathedral remains its main attraction. You could easily see the town on a day-trip from Cambridge, but it makes a pleasant night's stop in its own right, and is close to a couple of Cambridgeshire's other historic sights – namely the cathedral at Peterborough and the small town of Wisbech.
An ancient port built on an improbably marshy location, KING'S LYNN straddles the mouth of the Great Ouse, a mile or so before it flows into the Wash. Strategically placed to supply seven English counties, the merchants of Lynn grew rich importing fish from Scandinavia, timber from the Baltic and wine from France, while exporting wool, salt and corn to the Hanseatic ports. Timber and grain still pass through Lynn, along with Skoda cars from the Czech Republic and many other products. The town itself suffered badly during the 1950s and 1960s when much of the old centre was demolished to make way for commercial development. As a result, Lynn lacks the concentrated historic charm of towns such as Bury St Edmunds, though it does have a number of well-preserved buildings, the oldest guildhall in the country and a handful of excellent stately homes and medieval castle ruins within easy reach
Information selected from the Rough Guide Series