Breckland, via Derbyshire

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Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

During a few days in Derbyshire at the start of September we took the opportunity to visit Calke Abbey, a few miles south of Derby. Sir George Crewe (b.1795-d.1844), former owner of Calke, went the opposite way in the early 19th century, visiting East Anglia in June 1816. In his journal [1] he recorded his thoughts on a journey, the purpose of which is not clear, made over several days from Fressingfield to Peterborough. This took him through Breckland and his observations show us something of the way the region was perceived at the time by those not familiar with it.

On leaving this place [Garboldisham] I entered on the commencement of that wild part of country which occupies so large a part of Norfolk. Cultivated only here and there in patches, and producing nothing that I could see but Rye, Oats and a small quantity of Wheat, which looked very yellow and bad. A fine country for game I should imagine. Passed at the back of a house standing isolated, as it were, in the midst of a Desert surrounded by plantations of gloomy Fir, which seemed to be the only tree this unkind soil would bear.

Monday 10th June 1816

After what he described as a ‘dreary’ ride Crewe’s spirits were raised slightly once he reached Thetford. The Bell inn had ‘Civil attendants and a tolerably good Larder’ and along the river he found ‘A beautiful walk, the bank being planted with Alders’. He continued his journey the next day, travelling from Thetford to Ely:

No sooner had I got out of the town that I found myself again in the same wild country with a road as straight as a line – neither hedge nor tree to be seen, excepting here and there patches of dark Fir. The cultivation appeared to be very irregular…what small quantity of Wheat I saw looked very wretched indeed.

[…]

The only village on this stage is that of Elvedon, which stands like a luxuriant garden in a vast waste…Round this place you turn twice, the only turns in the whole road of 12 miles.

Tuesday 11th June 1816

Notes

[1] An edited edition of Crewe’s journals was published in 2004 by Scarthin Books – C. Kitching (ed.) Squire of Calke Abbey: The Journals of Sir George Crewe 1815-1834.

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During 2016 we are working on a project looking at the changing landscape of Breckland in the period 1700-1930. If you would like to find out more about the project and how you can get involved please contact us. Click here to email us.This project is part of the Breaking New Ground Landscape Partnership. You can find out more on the BNG website – www.breakingnewground.org.uk.

 

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Where is Breckland?

A brief look at the where the Breckland region starts and stops

It is, of course, easy to say where Breckland is: south west Norfolk and north west Suffolk; around Thetford and Brandon; either side of the A11 – all valid, if not particularly precise, answers.The characteristic landscapes of Breckland are highly distinctive and easy to recognise – forestry plantations, heathland, pine rows, farmland and irrigation frames. It is a landscape which is difficult to mistake for anywhere else. Yet where this region starts and stops has been the source of some disagreement. The map below, based on work carried out by David Addy, is not intended to be an exhaustive survey but provides a selection of boundaries which have been given for the Breckland region in various works. [1] Each is based on various criteria including soil type, distribution of plant species, parish boundaries, administrative convenience and landscape character.

Breckland boundaries

The creation of the Breckland local government district  in 1974 confuses the issue somewhat by incorporating a large chunk of central Norfolk which, in landscape terms, has little in common with the area to the south west. Trist’s boundary (from An Ecological Flora of Breckland) takes a pleasingly geometric approach, creating one of the largest definitions by following Ordnance Survey grid squares. Leaving these two aside Breckland acquires a slightly more uniform shape, stretching approximately from Swaffham in the north to Bury St Edmunds in the south and east to west from Hockwold to Harling. Exactly where the line should be drawn is a personal and subjective matter. The fenland landscape to the east and clayland landscape to the west are clearly very different propositions in terms of appearance and character, but the change from one to the other is not always abrupt and distinct.

The closest we have to a definitive definition is the current National Character Area boundary as defined by Natural England (number 85, The Brecks):

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The boundary of National Character Area 85 The Brecks as defined by Natural England

This takes in a large area and extends much further to the north and to the south east than many definitions, marching north past Castle Acre and even nudging into Cambridgeshire. It is recognised in the NCA description however that the the region’s boundaries are ‘mingled’ and ‘blurred’.

The smallest version of Breckland is that defined by E. Pickworth Farrow in 1915 (‘On the ecology of the vegetation of Breckland’). The southern half reflects most definitions but to the north the boundary is placed at what is now the edge of the Stanford Training Area, leaving out places such as Methwold and Hilborough.

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Farrow’s definition of Breckland (1915)

Schober (1937), Mosby (1938) and Postgate (1960) [2] all defined fairly similar areas, roughly the same shape as the modern NCA boundary but each making different decisions about precisely what to include and exclude. Postgate dealt with complexity of Breckland’s margins by making a further distinction between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ areas (the map below shows only the ‘core’).

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Breckland as defined by (from L to R) Schober, Mosby and Postgate.

Taken together these maps are a reminder of the complex and at times arbitrary nature of regional boundaries, and the difficulty of subjectively defining where one landscape type begins and another ends.

The Middle of Breckland

Combining all of the maps above (excluding Breckland District Council and Trist’s map) and calculating the coordinates of the middle of this shape allows us to pinpoint the definitive centre of Breckland – appropriately enough an area of forestry plantation here, just of the B1107 near Santon Downham.

Grid Reference: TL 82993 86236

Lat/Long: 52.4434622 / 0.69102232

Notes:

[1] A similar map can be found in K. Sussams, The Breckland Archaeological Survey (1996).

[2] E. Schober, Das “Breckland” : eine Charakterlandschaft Ost-Englands (1937); J.E.G. Mosby, Norfolk, Land Utilisation Survey of Great Britain (1938); M.R. Postgate, ‘Historical Geography of Breckland 1600-1850’.

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During 2016 we are working on a project looking at the changing landscape of Breckland in the period 1700-1930. If you would like to find out more about the project and how you can get involved please contact us. Click here to email us. This project is part of the Breaking New Ground Landscape Partnership. You can find out more on the BNG website – www.breakingnewground.org.uk.