If you’re going to hug a tree, it’s surely best to snuggle up to a species that can return some well-rounded affection. And there’s none better than a giant redwood. Encircling my arms around its vast circumference, the spongy bark yields, the trunk’s orangutan-orange fluffy coating almost warm under my autumn-chilled fingers. It’s so… alive.
I didn’t come to the forest to get arboreally affectionate, but faced with acres of giant redwoods, towering Monterey pines, magnificent blue Atlas cedars, and a solitary Chinese tree of heaven — whose branches curl skyward, as if in reverie — I find myself moved to a spontaneous squeeze. Being in the company of local mindfulness teacher and walking guide Amanda Flood, I’m perhaps more meditatively disposed than usual. Amanda’s guiding me around the arboretum at Brandon Country Park — the perfect place, she says, to master this modish technique of switching off, being in the moment, and allowing the mind to unwind. Amanda smiles beatifically: “Close your eyes, feel the leaves under your feet, breathe and just… be.”
Barely a couple of hours ago, I’d been cheek by scowling commuter jowl, on a rush-hour Central line Tube, now I find myself in the Brecks. This little-known, 386sq-mile stretch of Suffolk-Norfolk borderlands, just beyond Bury St Edmunds, incorporates heathland, wildlife-rich wetlands, and UK’s largest lowland forest. Made up of nature reserves and — as is the case with Brandon Park — the sprawling private estates of former 19th-century industrialists who took a fancy to forestry, the area has, of late, set itself up to be an outdoor playground — one with a remote vibe that belies its proximity to London. What roads there are see more wild bunnies than bottlenecks, and either skirt the forest or cut through oceanic swathes of orchard and farmland.
Deeper into Brandon’s forest, I get a crash course in fire-building from bushcraft expert Jon Tyler, who earned his survival stripes living for 10 days in the Guyanese Amazon. “Yes: a challenging environment,” he smiles. “But knowing how to build a fire is key to surviving anywhere — not least for the psychological comfort it provides.” I ignore the roar from two fighter jets on routine manoeuvres from nearby RAF Lakenheath, and imagine myself lost in the woods. A steel, a flint, some dry bracken and a slice of King Alfred’s Cake mushroom, plus guidance from Jon, and, to my great satisfaction, my little fire is soon illuminating the dense rows of gnarled pine trees peculiar to the Brecks’ forests..
That the Brecks is on the tourist map at all is thanks largely to its towering Douglas firs. You can monkey about in their branches, 40ft above the forest floor, at Go Ape’s canopy adventure park, a landmark in Thetford Forest since it opened in 2002. Less well-known is Bike Art: around 30 miles of cycle trails in an adjacent tract of woodland with dips and ruts that is — for spirit-level-flat Suffolk — as close to mountain biking as it gets. And, as is the case on the local roads, there’s barely anyone in sight.
Nearby Elveden Estate, meanwhile, offers a real off-road challenge: the chance to hoon through trees, trenches and muddy ruts in a Land Rover, no driving license required (a perk of being a private estate).
Now synonymous with growing vine and veggy varieties that thrive in the Brecks’ dry soil, Elveden has grander origins than Brandon Park, namely as the hunting grounds of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of India’s Sikh Empire. Today, it’s still a mecca for field sports — in my case, training a rifle over terrain where four species of deer roam. I’m after clay pigeons — and bag several — but deer, and game, are still hunted across the Brecks, with much of it finding its way onto local restaurant menus, helping Suffolk to retain its foodie hotspot status.
“Game is the first thing visitors ask for,” says Stuart Drake, chef at nearby Tuddenham Mill, a hotel set in a Doomsday-era former watermill. “We’ve got roe deer on tonight, fresh in from a local hunter,” he grins, clearly brokering no discussion about what to order. It arrives served with Brecks mushrooms and onions. Done in from two days of fire-starting, zip-lining, biking, Land Rover manoeuvring and rifle shooting, I’m just about left with enough muscle power to leaf through the weighty wine list, to select a stellar Suffolk vintage; a survival skill worth mastering.
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)