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Great Eastern Pingo Trail

A walk along an old railway course that has remnants of the ice age.

Distance 5.7 miles (9.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 33ft (10m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Wide grassy footpaths to narrow muddy ones, some steps

Landscape Woodland, heathland and meadow

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 229 Thetford Forest in the Brecks

Start/finish TL 940965

Dog friendliness Dogs permitted on old railway line but not in nature reserve

Parking Great Eastern Pingo Trail car park off A1075

Public toilets None on route

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1 Take the straight path in front of you, which is the disused railway line that gives the walk part of its name. Pass Stow Bedon Station, which was first opened in 1869, and won prizes for its upkeep in the 1950s and 1960s (it is now a private house). The path runs through mixed woodland and after a little more than a mile (1.6km) reaches a farm track, with Crow Farm on your right. Beneath the brambles you will see the stone foundations of the old railway keeper's cottage, dating to about 1870.

2 Turn right where the track meets the Peddars Way Circular Walk, heading towards Breckles and Stow heaths, which have been under conifers since the Stow Bedon Enclosure Act of 1813. On reaching Watering Farm, continue walking straight ahead.

3 Turn right along the gravelled footpath of the main north-south Peddars Way trail. You will soon see Thompson Water - a shallow artificial lake created in the 1840s - on your right. On your left note the signs warning would-be walkers that this is an area used by the Ministry of Defence. Once the lake is to your right, look out for a sign for the Great Eastern Pingo Trail.

4 Turn right into the Thompson Common nature reserve. This part of the walk can be muddy, and may necessitate some acrobatics across fallen trees and through sticky black bogs. There are trails to the lake itself, if you want a diversion to see teals, shovellers, reed warblers and crested grebes. The main path can be hard to follow, so look out for the waymarkers. Head for a bridge crossing a sluggish stream.

5 Turn left after you go over the bridge and walk next to the stream along a path lined by nettles.

6 Cross another bridge, going away from the stream and out into the open area of Thompson Carr, a meadow kept in good condition by a herd of grazing Shetland ponies. After you walk through a second meadow - in which are a number of large pingos - you will see Thompson village on the horizon. Follow a track to a paved lane.

7 At the lane, continue into the outskirts of the village itself. Pass a number of houses, until you see the Pingo Trail sign to your right. Follow it through the woodland to arrive back at the car park.

In 1869 trains steamed their way regularly down the 3-mile (4.8km) stretch between Stow Bedon and Great Hockham. The line, known locally as the Crab and Winkle, was particularly busy during the Second World War, when it was used by servicemen from nearby RAF Watton. However, all rolling stock stopped rolling here in 1965 and the line became one of Dr Beeching's casualties when he declared the service uneconomical.

In 1971, the county council bought the land, thinking it would make an excellent route for part of the A1075, but the plans changed and the road was built elsewhere. The council was left with a narrow strip of land that was not particularly useful, but with great foresight and imagination they decided to develop it as a public footpath. All along the first part of the route, you will see reminders of the days when this was busy with trains, with cuttings and embankments and the occasional ruins of a railway employee's cottage shrouded in brambles. The wood and metal bridge across the stream near Thompson Carr has a distinct look of the railway about it, and sturdy sleepers are used to raise the footpath above the marshier segments of the route.

Among the more curious features of the walk are the pingos. These are shallow depressions, often filled with water, that were formed about 20,000 years ago during the last ice age. Bubbles of ice formed underground and expanded, like a large, slippery lens. This lens forced the soil above it up, but years of foul weather washed most of it down the sides, where it formed a rim around the bottom. When the great glaciers finally retreated north, the underground ice bubbles melted, leaving behind small craters - hollow centres with built-up lips around the edges. Some of these filled with water, forming shallow pools that teem with wildlife.

Pingos are common in tundra areas like Greenland and Alaska, but they are less obvious in Britain. At one time there were pingos in a wide band across the whole of the Breckland, but many have been lost through ploughing when the fields were cultivated. Fortunately, the ones around Thompson Water have been left alone and today the area boasts the highest concentration of these unusual features in Breckland.

Near Thompson Water, you will see signs indicating that the land to your left is a military firing range. This is the Stanford Training Area, used for manoeuvres involving about 80,000 soldiers each year. Despite this, the entire area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and parts of it are untouched, allowing nature a free rein.

Where to eat and drink

The thatched roofed Chequers Inn at Thompson dates from the 17th century and serves a wide range of food. There is also the Dog and Partridge at nearby East Wretham, on the A1075, which serves food and has a pleasant beer garden at the back.

What to look for

On the western side of Thompson Water look for the large slate monument for Norfolk Songline Sculptures on the Peddars Way, with its poem commemorating ancient footpaths and ancestors. The monument is modern and its verse is printed sideways on. Thompson village church is away from the main settlement, suggesting a population shift at some point in its history, perhaps due to plague. College Farm stands on the site of a priests' school that was founded in 1349 by the Shardelowe family.

While you're there

The walk will take you through two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI): one ranging from Thompson Water right across to Thompson Common, and the other, if you take the extension, at Cranberry Rough. These areas are rich in wildlife and you should look for sedge and reed warblers, yellow iris and marsh fern. The information boards at the sites will give details about what can be seen where and when.

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