Exploring the ‘Suffolk Sahara’
PUBLISHED: 10:00 26 September 2016
Matt Gaw explores an area of the county that’s sometimes called Suffolk’s Sahara
There are hundreds of eyes on me when I walk on to Wangford Warren. Herds of rabbits. They skitter away in heart-quickening gallops or stand alert like prairie dogs. Cotton-tailed sentinels in the shadows of the razor wire and fences of Lakenheath airbase .
I have parked at the side of a road as long and as straight as any American highway and am now crunching across baked grass and sun-bleached clumps of reindeer moss. Beautiful grey corals that look ready to bounce away like tiny tumbleweeds.
The path stretches along in front of me. To the right are open patches of sand and an undulating line of mounds snaking all the way to the treeline. These are the remnants of the inland dunes that once reached from Lakenheath to Brandon. Now anchored by sedge, they once shuffled for miles across the landscape, dumping enough sand on Santon Downham during the 17th century to bury homes and acres of farmland. Just decades ago, a wandering dune, whipped on by the wind, blocked the road leading to Wangford.
I change direction and huff and puff up one of the biggest dunes, its side sagging and leaking sand. It is now late afternoon and although the sun is no longer hot on my head, the heat is still pulsing out of the ground, bringing with it a faint scent of crushed pine – part of me had expected the tang of salt or the cabbagey funk of seaweed.
I flop myself down to have a drink and pick up a bone-like shard of wood, light as a feather and cooked calcium-bright. This part of the country receives less rain than any other part of the UK and before now I’ve heard people wryly describe Wangford as Suffolk’s Sahara. The Badlands of Breckland.
But it’s not just the climate that has created shifting sands some 30 miles from the sea. The native forests that once stood here were cleared in Neolithic times by farmers who, unable to sustain crops on the thin glacial soils, were forced continually to move over the Brecks. The subsequent introduction of sheep and rabbits did the rest, nibbling grass to the root and exposing bare earth to the sun and the wind. Writing in H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald described Breckland – which incidentally means something like ‘broken land’ – as a “ramshackle wildness” where “people and the land have conspired to strangeness”.
Perched on a dune, I can’t help but be reminded of a golf course, albeit one where the fairways and greens are maintained by an army of over enthusiastic rabbit groundsmen who have created enough holes to sink a thousand balls. I stand up and feel the hour-glass fine sand sneaking into my boots and the turn-ups of my jeans. The dunes, I think, are still intent on moving by whatever means possible.
For information about visiting Wangford Warren see http://www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/reserves/wangford-warren