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Ploughs and Pheasants: Around Great Cressingham

Stroll in quiet lanes around Pickenham Hall in the valley of the River Wissey.

Distance 5.7 miles (9.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 164ft (50m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Paved country lanes

Landscape Gently undulating farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 236 King's Lynn, Downham Market & Swaffham

Start/finish TF 845018

Dog friendliness Dogs can run free, but watch for traffic

Parking Car park opposite Windmill pub, Great Cressingham

Public toilets None on route

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1 Park opposite the Windmill public house in Great Cressingham. It takes its name from an old corn mill that once operated near by. Turn left along a peaceful country lane. The grassy verges and hawthorn hedges here are a joy in spring, with nesting thrushes, wrens, blackbirds and robins. After about 350yds (320m) you should reach a crossroads.

2 Turn right along the lane marked to South Pickenham that runs parallel to the River Wissey. Some of the trees on this lane - oaks, chestnuts and beeches - were planted in the 19th century. There is a marshy meadow to the right, then the lane plunges into a shady wood where pheasants nest. After the woods look for the meadow with mature trees on your right. Modern agricultural methods mean that trees are seldom tolerated in the middle of fields these days, so when you see them, it means the landscape must be fairly ancient, dating to an era when it did not matter whether or not a plough could travel in a straight line.

3 Turn right when you get to the crossroads, and join the Peddars Way bridle route towards Ashill. This is another wooded lane, with the sturdy walls of the Pickenham Hall estate to the right. The Hall, which you may glimpse through the trees, is known for the high quality of its shooting - hence the number of pheasants in the surrounding fields. Before long, you will see the distinctive round tower of South Pickenham's All Saints' Church. Go straight across the next junction towards Ashill. This lane can be plagued by fast-driving cars, so you need to be vigilant and walk with care. Cross the brick bridge over the River Wissey and continue to the next junction.

4 Turn right along a narrow track, which is part of the long distance National Trail, the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path, and continue along it for a little less than 2 miles (3.2km), until you reach a junction with a main road.

5 Turn right again and continue until you get to Great Cressingham. St Michael's Church, which you will pass, has flint walls and large Gothic windows. There are interesting carvings above the tower door - each shield is crowned with the letter 'M', standing for St Michael. If you go inside, look for the 15th-century stained-glass and brasses.

6 Leave the church and follow the main road as it bears left into the village. Turn right at the T-junction to return to the car park and the start of the walk.

Most of us have seen pheasants strutting proudly along the side of the road or standing nobly in recently ploughed fields looking for seeds and grubs. Their metallic coughing calls emanating from woodlands and culverts is also a familiar country sound. You may well encounter them around Cressingham, which is noted for its game shoots. However, pheasants have not always been so numerous, and today's large numbers are influenced by the release of captive birds into the countryside for sport.

Pheasants are handsome birds. The males are chestnut-bronze, gorgeously marked with cream and black and an iridescent green-purple sheen. Their featherless faces are scarlet and they have bottle green heads. Females are less brilliant, and are quiet and sandy-buff coloured. Pheasants have long been considered a delicacy for the table and at medieval banquets roasted birds were often presented 'redressed' in their original feathers.

Pheasants were known in England as early as ad 1050, when they were mentioned in documents relating to royal feasts. The first reference to them in this country as birds for hunting occurred about 1100, when the Abbot of Amesbury applied for permission to hunt them for his own table. However, the pheasants we see today would not be the same as those shot by the abbot, because new species have been brought into the country and have interbred with the original population. These were introduced in the 18th and 19th centuries, and comprised mostly ring-necked species from central Asia, Japan and China. The Mongolian pheasant was introduced into England as recently as 1900, and immediately started to breed with the species already here. Some are artificially bred for specific colours, which is why when they hang in butchers' shops no two birds seem the same.

The word pheasant comes from the Greek 'phasianos', which means native of Phasis. This has its origins in the story of Jason and the Argonauts. When they went to Colchis on the edge of the Black Sea, they came back with more than a mere Golden Fleece: they were said to have returned with pheasants. There may be some truth to this story. Pheasants may well have originated in this region and then been exported by people who saw their potential as food. They were certainly raised in Greece during the life of Pericles (c 495-429 bc), because he mentioned them in his writing, and they appear in the records of the Romans, who considered them a great delicacy. In the 16th and 17th centuries, pheasant hunting became so popular in Europe that laws were passed to protect them.

Many of these birds are shot for sport each year, but when the numbers begin to decline, thousands of replacements are released from the local pheasantries, which breed game birds for just this purpose. Pheasants take to the wild very readily. The ring-necked species, which are the type you are most likely to encounter in Norfolk, prefer open woodland, meadows and thickets.

While you're there

Thetford Forest, to the west, offers a selection of marked trails of different lengths and difficulties. The little town of Watton,to the east, is a thriving community with small shops and a 12th-century church. It was granted permission to hold a market by King John in the 13th century, and maintains the tradition every Wednesday. Ecotech at Swaffham is also worth a visit.

Where to eat and drink

The Windmill offers a varied menu, including one for children, and there is a wide selection of beers. Dogs are allowed inside if they are well behaved. The pub has a 14th-century fireplace and an intriguing collection of Victorian photographs, including one of the mill after which the pub was named.

What to look for

Great Cressingham Manor House was once known as Great Cressingham Priory, although there was never a religious house here. It dates from the 1540s. Pickenham Hall was built for the banker G W Taylor, in 1902, by the architect Robert Weir Schultz. Although it is not open to visitors, you will be able to glimpse it through the trees as you walk around its walled grounds.

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