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The Saxons of West Stow

Walk in the footsteps of the Anglo-Saxons on this forest and riverside stroll.

Distance 4.2 miles (6.8km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Country park, riverside and forest paths

Landscape Heathland, woodland, forest, river, lake

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 229 Thetford Forest in the Brecks, and map of country park available from visitor centre

Start/finish TL 800714

Dog friendliness On leads in West Stow Country Park and on Forestry Commission land

Parking West Stow Country Park car park

Public toilets At car park

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1 From the car park, follow the well-signposted nature trail that starts between the toilets and the visitor centre. The path is waymarked with yellow arrows and there are occasional interpretation boards describing the flora and fauna to be seen along the way. After walking through a woody glade, you reach the open space of West Stow Heath. Pass through two gates and continue walking down to the river.

2 Turn right at a junction of paths to walk around the lake, a flooded former gravel pit used in the construction of Lakenheath airfield during World War Two. You should see ducks and Canada geese here, and great crested grebes nest on the islands in spring. Returning to the start of Point 2, keep right along the riverbank, where if you are lucky you might spot herons and kingfishers. When the nature trail turns left, keep straight ahead on a grassy riverside path. Stay on this path as it swings to the left, then climb an embankment and turn right towards an old pump house. A short diversion to the right leads to a bird hide overlooking the Lackford Wildfowl Nature Reserve.

3 Turn right at the pump house and follow the Lark Valley Path, winding through pine woods and turning sharp right to return to the river with views over a lake. Turn left here and stay close to the river as you pass behind a sewage works.

4 When you see a small weir ahead, turn left on a wide Forestry Commission track leading into West Stow village. The track briefly doubles back on itself, then swings right to run alongside the pine woods, past a barrier and behind a group of houses to the road. Turn right, passing a 30mph sign, then go left along a concrete lane marked by a red Forestry Commission sign (No 205). Walk along this lane to Forest Lodge.

5 Turn left across the car park and take the path behind the notice-board to enter the forest. Follow this path round to the left, then turn right where it joins a wide track. Stay on this track as it crosses a clearing and continues through the forest. Between March and July every year, herons breed in these woodlands and it is essential to stick to the path to avoid disturbing nesting birds.

6 When you see a derelict barn at the corner of a field (just before the red Forestry Commission sign No 209), turn left along a narrow footpath on the edge of the woods to return to the road directly opposite the car park.

The reputation of the early English as crude, marauding barbarians has had to be revised following discoveries at Sutton Hoo and West Stow. It was around ad 420 that Saxon settlers from Germany sailed up the River Lark and established a village at Stowa ('special place'). The settlement, which probably consisted of about 60 people made up of two or three families and their slaves, lasted for some 200 years and its excavation has thrown new light on the Anglo-Saxon people and their way of life, forcing us to re-examine our view of the 'Dark Ages'.

Among the finds on display in the Anglo-Saxon Centre at West Stow are bronze brooches, bone combs, antler keys, amber and glass beads, silver jewellery, swords and shields, which reveal both a degree of technical sophistication and a level of contact with other cultures far greater than previously thought. What makes West Stow really interesting to visit, however, is the fact that the village has been reconstructed, not as an Anglo-Saxon theme park but using serious archaeological techniques in an attempt to recreate early English life as authentically as possible. Clues such as post holes in the ground and the remains of burnt-out timber buildings have allowed us to build up a vivid picture of the village, with a large communal hall surrounded by smaller houses, barns and workshops with raised floors, timber walls and thatched roofs.

If you can, visit West Stow over a bank holiday weekend or during the school holidays, when costumed 'Anglo-Saxons' from living history groups move into the village. (Telephone the visitor centre to check dates in advance.) Children in particular will have great fun meeting these villagers and watching them at work building fires and giving demonstrations of everything from weaving, dyeing, pottery and woodwork to jewellery-making, leatherwork and blacksmithing in the old forge.

The Anglo-Saxon village is situated inside West Stow Country Park, which means you can combine a visit with a walk for an interesting day out. The 125-acre (51ha) park was opened in 1979 on the site of a former sewage farm between the River Lark and the King's Forest. This is on the southern edge of the Brecks, a large area of dry, sandy heathland and pine forest straddling Norfolk and Suffolk. There are several short trails within the country park, but for a longer walk try this easy circuit which takes in a variety of wildlife habitats.

Where to eat and drink

Angles cafeteria, beside the visitor centre, is open from 11am to 4pm daily, selling sandwiches, snacks, teas and ice creams. There are also a number of picnic tables in the area around the visitor centre and the car park.

While you're there

The Anglo-Saxon village is open from 10am to 5pm daily. Start by watching the short video, which places the village in context, then visit the Anglo-Saxon Centre and wander around the village looking into the houses. There is an enjoyable quiz sheet for children in which they can solve the clues by reading the runes (the Anglo-Saxon alphabet) marked on the houses. Telephone 01284 728718 for details of special events.

What to look for

There are good views from Angles cafeteria over the bird-feeding area, where regular visitors include the nuthatch and the great spotted woodpecker, with its black and white plumage and bright red undertail. Look out too for electric blue damselflies, that can be seen buzzing around the river and lake in summer.

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