A pleasant riverside and forest walk on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk.
Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Riverside and forest paths, some roads
Landscape Brandon, Thetford Forest and Little Ouse River
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 229 Thetford Forest in the Brecks
Start/finish TL 784864
Dog friendliness Dogs should be kept under control in Thetford Forest Park
Parking Market Hill car park (free), Brandon
Public toilets At car park and Thetford Forest Park centre, Santon Downham
1 From the car park, follow the signs to the town centre, emerging on Market Hill, a large square where a market is held twice a week. Cross the road here and continue along the High Street until you come to a bridge over the Little Ouse. Cross the bridge and take the first turning right along Riverside Way, then leave the road by turning right along a narrow path that runs down towards the river.
2 This is the start of the Little Ouse Path, a riverside footpath connecting Brandon to Thetford. Turn left along the riverbank to cross a footbridge and pass a landing stage that marks the limit of navigation on the river. Stay on this path for about 2½ miles (4km) as it follows the twists and turns of the river, with views of marshes, pine forest and meadows on the far bank. This is a very peaceful stretch of the walk and the silence is only disturbed by the splashing of ducks or the occasional sound of a train on the railway line that runs parallel to the river.
3 Eventually the river straightens out before sweeping round to the right in a wide arc. When you reach a bridge, climb the steps and turn right over the bridge into the village of Santon Downham. This lovely village, deep in the forest, is the headquarters of Thetford Forest Park. In 1668, the entire village was engulfed by a sand storm, once a common occurence in these parts.
4 Pass the forest centre and the village shop, and continue up the hill to St Mary's Church, otherwise known as the Church in the Forest. Turn right opposite the church to walk briefly alongside the road to Brandon, facing the village green. When the road bends left, keep straight ahead on a surfaced track leading to a telephone box and the village hall. When the track ends, continue straight ahead on a footpath into the forest.
5 Stay on this path as it bends to the right and crosses a wide sandy track. Shortly afterwards, you pass a metal barrier and follow the path round to the left. The path winds gently through the forest, passing a campsite and another metal barrier before reaching the stables and paddocks of a riding school. Follow the track past the school, but when the track bends left, turn right along a narrow path between the paddocks and the woods.
The route from here back to Brandon is straightforward. Stay on this path as it gradually widens to become a track with a flint-faced wall on the left. The track, known as Gashouse Drove, continues all the way to the High Street, passing a housing estate and then a group of large modern houses on the left. Turn left at the High Street to return to the car park at the start of the walk.
Brandon lies at the heart of the Brecks, a large area of heathland and pine forest straddling north Suffolk and South Norfolk. Beneath the sandy soil lie vast amounts of flint, a fact that has played a major role in the history of the town. Flint was mined near Brandon in neolithic times, and in the 19th century more than 200 knappers were employed locally to produce gun flints for the Napoleonic Wars. Even today, many buildings in Brandon are built of flint and brick.
Prehistoric farmers used flint axes to create the large open heathland, which was kept clear for centuries by grazing rabbits and sheep. The nature of the Brecks changed for ever with the planting of Thetford Forest, Britain's largest lowland pine forest, in the 1920s. This easy-to-follow walk takes you along the Little Ouse River from Brandon to Santon Downham, returning on a forest path. Although the walk begins and ends in Suffolk, much of it is actually in Norfolk, on the north bank of the river.
Lunchtime options in Brandon include Collins' Fish Restaurant on the High Street and the Five Bells pub on Market Hill, close to the start of the walk. Another good choice is the Ram Inn, beside the bridge over the Little Ouse. There is nowhere to eat at Santon Downham, but the village shop sells drinks and ice creams.
Grimes Graves, 2 miles (3.2km) north of Santon Downham, has been described as the oldest industrial site in Europe. Visitors can go deep down into the shafts of a prehistoric mine to see where flint was gathered more than 4,000 years ago. To learn more about the area's history of flint mining and forestry, visit the Brandon Heritage Centre on George Street, open on summer weekends. Children will enjoy Brandon Country Park, with its tree trail, forest walks, walled garden, parkland and lake, and the High Lodge Forest Centre in Thetford Forest Park, which makes a great family day out with its adventure course, maze, bike hire, cycle trails, waymarked walks and hands-on nature activities for kids.
Approaching Santon Downham from the river, you pass an attractive terrace of flint-faced bungalows on your right. These old cottages are typical of the building style of the Brecks, using the flint stones found in the chalk below the soil.