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Wing and Prayer
Norfolk Brecks

by Sarah Shuckburgh

A bike ride in the Norfolk Brecks is enchanting, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

My friend Ella is full of praise for her favourite corner of East Anglia: it's the emptiest part of the country; it's the driest area in England, where the rainfall equals that of Jerusalem; it's the best place for bicycling; and it's unparalleled for buying poultry.

Few may live in the northern reaches of the Norfolk Brecks, but on Saturday mornings they all seem to be in Swaffham. Straight after breakfast, we make for Swaffham Poultry Market, where a noisy, odorous menagerie awaits in ramshackle wire coops, stacked from floor to ceiling. Peering from their high-rise cells are chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, parrots, guinea fowl, doves, budgies and canaries. Balls of bright yellow fluff squeak from shoe boxes lined with wood shavings. There are trays of eggs, delicate white, dark brown, speckled grey and bluish, all grubby and covered with feathers. Makeshift cages of chicken-wire, cardboard and parcel-tape contain guinea pigs, floppy-eared rabbits, and hamsters - all for sale at the crack of an auctioneer's hammer. And between the stacks, impassive punters eye the livestock, hovering nonchalantly, giving nothing away.

Suddenly an indignant, quacking duck is dangled by its neck, and from a stepladder the auctioneer belts out his tongue-twisting patter: "Foive ducks - pa-oond a piece. Ady [80]-a-piece? Fiddi [50]? Fiddi-fiddi-fiddi; siddi-siddi-siddi; senni-senni; ady-ady-ady; noiny-noiny-noiny; one poun'; onetwenny-onetwenny-onetwenny-onetwenny." The bidders twitch or blink and then, abruptly, the machine-gun rattle stops, and through the squawks and human chatter, a calm voice announces, "One pound eighty. How many you want?" Ella is tempted to bid for a canary, but instead she leads me to the forecourt of the Greyhound Inn, where Tyrone R Roberts is shifting piles of unlikely merchandise to another crowd of stony-faced men. "Hold 'er up, boy," he shouts, as his lad lifts a Dyson full of fluff. "Like new, she is. What d'you like, throw in this box of doorknobs and this rope, all for six pound, all right, three, four, not you, five, not you, you're out, you bought it sir."

Ella likes the look of a strimmer, which we know works, because several punters have got it going but the bidding quickly soars to £70. "Tyrone's in the Guinness Book of Records," confides a burly customer proudly. "Fastest auctioneer in the world, he be."

In the 18th century, Swaffham was a glittering resort, the "Montpelier of England", famed for its healthy dry air. Wealthy farmers and their families would escape mud and boredom by moving here for a season of balls, concerts, promenades and races - hare-coursing was invented here. Today the town is unpretentious and charming, with elegant Georgian houses, rows of pretty cottages, and a Saturday market which has been the biggest and busiest in the region since records began in the 13th century. Dodging the stream of cars heading for the Norfolk coast, we linger by stalls selling Cromer crabs and lobsters, local cheeses, china, books and bric-a-brac, around the Butter Cross.

Several shops and cafés are named after the Pedlar, Swaffham's medieval hero, who, like Dick Whittington, set off to London to seek his fortune, but turned back to find treasure buried under his own apple tree. According to the legend, the Pedlar used his windfall to rebuild Swaffham church, which is today (according to Ella) England's finest 15th-century church, with a superb double hammerbeam roof.

As the church clock strikes one, we collect our hired bikes, and pedal away from the crowds to explore the heaths and forests of the northern Brecks and, more important, to reach the Twenty Church Wardens pub before the kitchens close at 2pm. We ride between dark conifers and then out into open countryside. After the Swaffham throngs, we are now utterly alone, beneath an infinite arch of palest grey-blue sky. Fine sand has blown across the narrow road, forming untidy drifts secured by quivering tufts of grass. Stone Age farmers first cleared trees here 6,000 years ago, establishing the arid heathland. The brecks, which now give the area its name, were small enclosures, enriched with sheep's dung and cultivated for a year or two, and then allowed to revert to heath.

We freewheel cheerfully downhill towards the collapsed spire of Cockley Cley church, and dash into the pub. Later, fuelled with Norfolk turkey and Iceni beer, we cycle on beside the peaceful water meadows of the tiny River Gadder. A gentle breeze cools our rosy cheeks, and I find myself echoing Ella's enthusiasm - bicycling here is a joy. The lane, like many in the Brecks, is lined with stunted, twisted pines, their scraggy, tortured trunks corkscrewing up towards scrappy branches. These were once carefully woven hedgerows, planted almost two centuries ago to mark boundaries and to prevent erosion by prevailing winds, now neglected and grown wild. This area is full of traces of Neolithic flint mines, Bronze Age barrows, and, in these water meadows, Roman and Iceni remains from the time when Boudicca was the local queen.

Soon we arrive at Oxburgh Hall, built in warm russet brick in 1480 by Sir Edmund Bedingfeld, whose descendants still live here, now as tenants of the National Trust. The ornate Tudor furnishings include precious embroideries sewn by Mary Queen of Scots. From the cavernous room where Henry VII slept, we creep into the claustrophobic priest hole, and then climb a beautiful spiral staircase to the roof, to gaze beyond the barley-sugar chimney pots at parkland, forest and endless, luminous sky.

Back on our bikes, we pedal gently along deserted lanes, past fields of potatoes, sugar beet and asparagus.

Passing another ruined church - a reminder of times when the Brecks were more heavily populated - we reach Beachamwell, a quiet village with hollyhocks in front of picturesque cottages, and a wonderful thatched Saxon church with a hexagonal tower of local flint. Pheasants, pecking in the dust, are startled by us, and run clumsily in all directions, squawking irritably, before heaving themselves into the air.

All along our route we see rabbits, hopping in and out of hedgerows, lolloping across the sandy ground. Rabbits were introduced by the Normans, and by medieval times had become big business for ecclesiastical landlords, with huge sandy warrens supplying flourishing fur and meat markets. As the fashion for fur hats and rabbit pie declined, the warrens were planted with conifers and arable crops, but today moves are being made to preserve and restore the ancient heathland, with grazing sheep and rabbits.

We stop at the hamlet of Drymere to buy honey and eggs from a farmhouse door, and shiver with a sudden chill in the air. As we cycle our last mile, two slowly whirling wind turbines and the smaller spike of Swaffham church loom like sentries. Rooks circle noisily above a copse, and a pearly-pink flush seeps into the translucent sky.

Ella and I have witnessed the world's fastest auctioneer, shopped at the region's oldest, largest and busiest market, and pedalled for 20 miles through England's driest, emptiest landscape, beneath her biggest skies. But now for another superlative: we are staying, like the most fashionable 18th-century ladies, in a Palladian villa called Strattons, which is Swaffham's most glamorous and most gastronomic hotel.

Swaffham Museum Town Hall (01760 721230; www.aboutswaffham.co.uk).
Iceni Village (01760 721339); a reconstructed Iron Age village and nature trail through pretty water meadows.
Gooderstone Water Gardens (01603 712913); a water gardens with trout stream, waterways and tea room.
Oxburgh Hall (01366 328258; www.nationaltrust.org.uk); a moated manor house, gardens and woodland.
Narborough Hall Narborough (02074 391001; open Sunday pm); has a gallery, garden and grounds with an Iron Age henge.
Westacre River Studios West Acre (01760 755800; www.westacreriverstudios.co.uk); a rural theatre that stages studio productions, folk, jazz and classical music, dance, storytelling and creative arts.
Iceni Brewery, Ickburgh (01842 8789223); this traditional brewery has hop garden and offers tours.
Grimes Graves (01842 810656; www.english-heritage.org.uk); Neolithic flint mines and an exhibition of Stone Age life.
Thompson Common Nature Reserve, in Stow Bedon, has patterned ground caused by the last ice age.
St Mary's Church, Houghton on the Hill, South Pickenham; fascinating church with rare 11thcentury murals. Visits by arrangement (01760 440470).

Norfolk Brecks basics

Staying there
Strattons Hotel ( 01760 723845; www.strattons hotel.com; doubles, £260-£400 for two nights; four-course dinner, £37.50 per head). Cliff Barns, Narborough ( 01366 328342; www.cliff barns.com; weekends from £2,550, one week from £3,750) is a stylish self-catering barn conversion that sleeps 18. The Bedingfeld Arms, Oxborough ( 01366 328300; doubles, £55) is a picturesque pub with rooms.

Bike Art ( 01842 810090: www.bike-art.com) cycle rental will deliver and collect; one day, £14.75; two days, £18.75; one week, £30; includes helmets. Delivery costs £10 (free for more than three bikes). It can suggest rides of varying lengths. See also East of England Tourist Board (0870 225 4852; www.visiteastofengland.com) and Peaceful Byways (www.peacefulbyways.co.uk), which has 12 rides from Swaffham.

Further information
Swaffham Tourist Centre (March-September; 01760 722255). Brecks Tourism Partnership ( 01842 760116; www.brecks.org).

First published by the Telegraph

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