There’s a lightness about Breckland, a dryness and pallor to the landscape, which make it feel somehow different to the rest of Norfolk. It’s in the soil, the thin sand with its luggage of chalk and flint, carrying exhausted soldierly lines of Scots pine which twist away as you drive through the almost imperceptible roll and swell of the land. It’s been a hard job to cultivate here since man first put trowel to ground. A land far better suited to animals paring the stumped grass and heathers, and those species of tree that thrive where root hunt had, and fruit don’t fatten.
There’s something reflective about the heat here in the summer months, more arid, like some small scale piece of Americana – prairie-like, or the edge of the Steppe – moss, tight grass, birch and heathers in the wilder corners. It’s near the flint fields and you can see the shattered remnants of outcrops in the sands where the plough has passed before, repeated for decades, centuries, milennia. Sharp frosts flaking the broken edges in the slow cycles of freeze thaw. These are square edged flakes kicked-up by rabbits from the warrens laying in the pale earth under the close-cropped grass. Occasionally a flake glows at you, thin slivers and splinters that show pressure marks, hand-made, four thousand years or more ago in these lands of hunting and trade.
East Wretham NWT (Norfolk Wildlife Trust) is a lovely curiosity, a mixture of nature and memory, and a display of the ebb and flow of time in the constantly shifting thin surfaces we drift and live within. The warrens themselves are old, the landscape acned by Leporidae since the first century, a Roman taste for rabbit brought them from Spain across the empire to here to farm. And here their ancestors present a white scatter of tails as you walk over the broken surface of their ancestral home. In the skies the constant scratching drawl of the crows as they wheel around, centred on a large roost in the trees. It would be easy if it were just this sense of nature moving on, but once you meet the woodland proper you start to see man’s incursions into the landscape more clearly than any of the other animals.
There will be somewhere in these fields of flint scatter the worn paths of the hunter-gatherer and the boundaries of ownership imposed by the early farmers; you can’t mostly see them in this landscape, but what we do get instead here is the pathways of more recent conflict. The first thing you will find clearly in the carpet of leaves, moss, and the needle fall, is the strip tarmac and concrete of an old solid floor. The paths here partly follow lines drawn in the rushed summer of the first year of the Second World War, when Wretham with it’s flattened land void of obstructions became an ideal place for a relatively short-lived air base. It’s still there under your feet and stretching out around you mostly unsensed, but it’s also right here in front of you.
Just inside the entrance gate to this open woodland there lies the remains of the bomb dumps which mark the southern edge of the airbase. They are far away from hurriedly constructed tin-huts; the cold, simple living-quarters for the squadron. Initially it was home to one of the Czechoslovakian Squadrons, people lucky enough to escape the annexation of their country by the Nazis. They were the RAF; 311 squadron set-up here in 1940, predominantly flying the rather beautiful geodesic skeleton form of the Wellington bomber. 311 swiftly left and joined Coastal Command and were followed in by 115 Squadron again flying Wellingtons and later Lancasters. 115 went on to become one of the most damaging and damaged squadrons in Bomber Command. In 1943 it all changed, the Americans arrived and the name shifted from RAF East Wretham to USAF Designation Station 133, becoming a fighter base. Initially bull-nosed P47s Thunderbolts flew from here, then as the technology advanced and changed in came the slip-streamed racing car bodied P51D Mustangs – the war churned on. These little slivers of silver supported the swarming bomber streams over Europe and flew as fighter bombers during D-Day. The airfield was decommissioned in 1945. Then the Polish came here to await their return to their ruined homeland or be resettled. By the end of 1946 STANTA (Stanford Training Area), already formed, had embraced most of the site, including many of the buildings including the Control Tower and the T2 hangers it in its encircling arms.
The bomb dumps are slightly surreal, they could be anything were it not for the shapes in the bricks; a railway siding, a collapsed waste pile or a bronze age feature. But they are in fact placed to form a shelter from blast, somewhere to store things that go bang away from people who are destined to hit the button that makes them go bang. There are the usual frost-shattered piles of tile and brick, remains of walls and hefty piles and lumps of soil pushed up. The fusing sheds are stranger still, fairly complete – although in slow collapse, a huge berm pushed up around them, protect the contents from an outside threat during any raids and protecting the outside from the threat of the lively stuff inside. I’ve reasonable reasons to believe these three huts with dividing walls of brick that doesn’t look solid enough to stop fireworks, were for fusing incendiaries; particularly nasty little objects of death that are dropped not to shatter a military target, whatever that is, but to set fire to a locality in it’s entirety. And by locality I mean city, and by city I mean where the enemy lives, and but enemy I mean wives, children, the young and the sick, the off-duty, the injured and the infirm. I know it isn’t that clear cut, but the thought draws a shiver up from the groundwater up, and even in the spring warmth, lifts the skin on your neck and arms, and you get out of there.
The stands of Scot’s Pines are nice; sculpted melancholy, almost blue patterned plate china, seemingly almost Asian, the east in the east. A brief carpet of green and the tarmac changes to hidden concrete, and on the edge of the wood, here is the hard-standing, still vaguely solid under the spongy moss and grass. There is a sign warning of the danger of climbing the low fence into the military training ground, and distant the crackling bush-flame sound of live-fire confirming how potentially stupid it would be to do anything but look over at the stretch of the airfield and it disappears off in a gentle curve and wonder whether the runway mats are still meshed into the grass. The dispersal I’m standing on is a panhandle, there are three here, all invisible under the carpet of the past 70 years of leaf-drop – the 280 seasonal ebbs and flows. And in that jarring way that continuity drives things along, so it feels sometimes seems almost synchronous; there is another circle in the same field a few hundred feet away, from a different age, glimpsed under the bowed heads of the pines and the dying light of the closing cloud; a double ring-ditch of indeterminable age, cut in and piled up around what was a mere or a natural hollow, it sleeps by it’s younger cousins in the field.
The woodland is special, it lacks the density and silence you find in some planted stands of conifers, there is no dead space – the immigrant rabbits and squirrels, nodding humans with twitcher’s lenses like mortars slung across shoulders crackle through the undergrowth, the crows, the wildfowl. The pathways leads back round along a track, through the string of meres, Langmere, Fenmere and Ringmere, Tolkein-esque names for gaps in the land surface, these natural soft circular hollows fill from the water table and drain back into it, no flow in, none out, glacial stillness of no known age. So close to Thompson and its pingos we could maybe assume they are vestiges of the ice, I don’t know. The last stretch is back through the centre of the warren, and the sun breaks through and lights the white warnings of the running rabbits and the circle closes.