First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A heavy grey day over the Suffolk Breckland, and a carpet of wild flowers on the sandy heathland at Ramparts Field. White campion, acid yellow stonecrop, blue viper’s bugloss, purple knapweed, and the stars of the show – maiden pinks, each delicate flower on a slender stalk, the five petals an intense cherry pink.
Breckland lies on deep beds of sand under peaty soils. Once exposed by the tree-felling and ploughing of early settlers, the sand began to drift and blow about in sandstorms, the worst of which buried whole villages in the 17th century. Today it hosts enormous numbers of coniferous trees in the shape of Thetford Forest and the King’s Forest, planted between the wars to guarantee the country a supply of timber.
We found St Edmund’s Way at the edge of the King’s Forest and followed it through the trees. Here on a grassy knoll stands West Stow Anglo Saxon village, a remarkable experiment, a group of thatched huts of split timber and wattle built on the site where settlers from what’s now Germany established a village shortly after the Romans left these shores.
We wandered round the dark, fire-scented little houses with their wooden hearths, box beds and skins hung up to cure. The archaeologist who built them weren’t sure what the originals were really like, so each of these dwellings represents a style on the road to enlightenment. One conclusion is inescapable – domestic life in 5th-century Stow must have been crowded, smelly, noisy and without privacy.
A grassy path among head-high umbellifers led us on, the scent of firewood still in our noses. We followed tracks among tall pines, their dusky trunks clad with rough plates of bark like saurian hide, then down along the reedy River Lark and its broad string of gravel-pit lakes where great crested grebes were sailing.
Our return way led through the heart of the King’s Forest, a path of black mud and pink pine needles that passed a paddock hazed blue with viper’s bugloss. At the western edge of the forest we turned for home down the Icknield Way, by whose ancient route travellers have been crossing the great sands of Breckland for at least six thousand years.
How hard is it? 5½ miles, easy, forest tracks
Start: Ramparts Field car park, West Stow IP28 6HF (OS ref TL 788716)
Getting there: West Stow Country Park is signed off A1101 (Barton-Mills – Bury St Edmunds); car park in 100m.
Walk (OS Explorer 229): Left up road. In 300m right (792715, ‘St Edmund Way’/SWE). In 200m left (791713, kissing gate, ‘Access Land’). In 100m, right (‘Otter Gate’); fork left (‘Lake Walk’). In 500m, at bench, left (795713, ‘Beowulf/Grendel Trail’). Through Otter Gate; at info board, right (St Edmund Way/SEW) to Visitor Centre (800714) and Anglo-Saxon village (798713). From Visitor Centre, follow SEW signs for ⅔ mile via pump house (803712) to roadway (809710). Right; in 200m by car park, left (807709, black arrow/BLA); on SEW. In 400m pass sewage farm (811708); in 150m, left off SEW by fence (812706) to road (813709). Right; in 50m left up track; in 300m left (814712, blue ringed post) on forest path. At T-junction, right (809213); in 40m, left (BLAs) to T-junction (804716). Left. In 300m by Wideham Barn, track bends right (801717);
turn immediately left by pole. In 400m where track bends right beside deep pit (798718), left on path at edge of trees for 350m to Icknield Way (795719). Left to road (792715); right to car park.
Lunch/Accommodation: Guinness Arms, Icklingham IP26 6PS (01638-597547, guinnessarms.com)
Info: West Stow Anglo Saxon Village – 01284-728718, weststow.org