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Unexplored landscapes – where to get your fresh air fix

If you’ve been on your quarantine couch for a while, you’ll be itching to escape to the great big outdoors. If so, then the East of England is the perfect place for you and your family to get your fresh air fix.

Norfolk Coast AONB

Kelling Heath, Norfolk

Celebrating its 50th anniversary as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 2018, Norfolk Coast’s protected status provides long-term care for this remarkably diverse landscape. The coastline includes tidal creeks and salt marshes, shingle and sandy beaches, marram-tufted dunes and soaring cliffs. Highlights include Blakeney Point, a longshore drift spit that is home to the country’s largest seal colony in Winter and Spring when pupping takes place.

Quiet country lanes take you through chalk stream valleys, woodlands, heathland and you’re never too far from a characterful country pub or quaint village to take a breather. Head to Roman Camp and you’ll be at the highest point in East Anglia.

The area has a number of nationally renowned nature reserves, not least Cley Marshes, named by Sir David Attenborough as ‘one of the great places in Britain to see wildlife’.

Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB

The AONB is 155 square miles of tranquil coastal and country low-lying landscape includes ancient heathland, woodland, crumbling cliffs, shingle and sand beaches and stunning estuaries, all rich in wildlife.

Use coastal towns Southwold and Aldeburgh or inland Woodbridge on the River Deben as your base and then head out to explore.

Highlights include the Alde estuary at Snape, Orford National Nature Reserve and RSPB Minsmere, home for many years to BBC’s Springwatch.

The Broads National Park

Sailing boats on the Broads

The country’s latest National Park and uniquely the only one that is largely man-made, the result of medieval peat diggings, the Broads are 125 miles of navigable, lock-free waterways that are home to a huge range of wildlife.

Cycling and walking are good options here, but the best way to see the Broads is by boat – they can be hired for the day or longer at many riverside towns and villages, not least Wroxham and Potter Heigham.

The Broads is also the only National Park in England with a city in it, Norwich.

Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley

view of Bures Dragon with sunflowers

 

Made famous by landscape painters Constable and Gainsborough, Dedham Vale on the Essex-Suffolk border is traditional English lowland landscape, with rolling farmland, grasslands, hedgerows, meadows, woodlands and a rich variety of wildlife.

Essentially still a farming area, the Dedham Vale is punctuated by charming villages and has the picturesque River Stour running through it to its estuary end at Harwich. Look out for the legendary dragon carved into the hillside which can be seen from behind St Stephen’s Chapel in Bures.

A highlight is the National Trust-run Flatford Mill, an 18th century Grade 1 listed mill with lovely views along with the wool towns of Long Melford and Lavenham.

Thetford Forest & Brecks

Thetford Forest

Thetford Forest, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, is the largest lowland pine forest in the country and has the best overall climate. The forest was only created in 1922, with thousands of Scots and Corsican Pines providing commercial fast-growing softwood for the Forestry Commission.

Before that, this area was just pebbles and sand – Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield that it was ‘barren’. Very different now, the forest is ideal for walking, orienteering, cycling and there are many bridle paths. Take a picnic and see if you can spot wild deer.

Thetford Forest is within the Brecks, an historic landscape of heaths that were formed thousands of years ago by the felling and burning of forests for grazing land.

Highlights are High Lodge, Grime’s Graves, a Neolithic flint mine you can descend, moated Oxburgh Hall with its priest hole and secret doors, and you can head out on the 8-mile Pingo Trail, circular lakes created in the last Ice Age.

The Wash National Nature Reserve

RSPB Snettisham The Wash

One of Britain’s most untamed wild spots, The Wash estuary is home to myriad wildlife. It is estimated the sheltered bay is home to around 400,000 birds at any time, with around 2 million birds a year using the location for feeding and roosting during their annual migrations.

The bay is made up of saline lagoons, deep trenches, salt marsh and a vast expanse of shallow mudflats and sandbanks.

With its remote habitats and tidal flows that are perfect for shellfish to breed, this is a perfect location for wading birdlife, especially oystercatchers and common tern.

In the Winter, huge flocks of pink-footed geese, dark-bellied Brent geese and shelduck create a spectacular sight at dawn as they take off to feed inland. The best place to see this is at RSPB Snettisham.

Carlton Marshes

Carlton Marshes

Supported by Sir David Attenborough, Carlton Marshes, on the River Waveney in Suffolk close to Oulton Broad, is set to become one of the largest wetland nature reserves in the country under a plan by Suffolk Wildlife Trust.

The marsh and wetland creation are already attracting migrant waders and birds of prey such as marsh harriers, barn owls and hobbies.

The Angles Way passes through the site and there are numerous footpaths.

Orwell River and Shotley Peninsula

Orwell Bridge and Shotley Peninsula

This is a stunning landscape next to Suffolk’s county town of Ipswich and can be enjoyed from river cruises out of Ipswich waterfront, by car or cycle.

The River Orwell is a beautiful deep-water river that meanders towards the port of Felixstowe and then out into the North Sea and it hasn’t changed much since the days when the Romans invaded. In fact there’s the remains of a Roman fort at Walton near Trimley St Martin, an outreach of the large Roman garrison at Colchester, the oldest recorded town in England.

Highlights include the Butt & Oster pub at Pin Mill, the Royal Harwich Yacht Club, Suffolk Food Hall, and 16th century Freston Tower but the undeniable highlight is the magnificent Orwell Bridge, the longest pre-stressed concrete span when it was completed in 1982. The bridge is made of concrete box girders that allow for movement.

The Fens

Cathedral silhouetted at sunset, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Drained first by the Romans and then finally by Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden in the middle 17th century, The Fens are now rich arable land with artificial cuts, drains and sluices keeping it dry. Below sea level, this flat expanse, the lowest land in the UK, was previously treacherous swamps and a jungle of vegetation where a few hardy folk eked out a meagre subsistence from fishing, fowling, gathering reeds for thatch and grazing animals on the little pasture and meadow there was.

Crossing Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk, The Fens were known as the ‘Holy Land of the English’ because of the number of monasteries, churches and cathedrals it had. The best of these, Ely Cathedral, otherwise known as the Ship of the Fens because of the way it rises majestically above the flat landscape, is worth a visit.

Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Welney can be visited year-round, but best in Winter when there are thousands of migrating swans, ducks and breeding birds.