There is something liberating about heading deep into a forest and leaving the hubbub of modern life behind you. Filling your lungs with the scent of pine and treating your ears to the strange silence that only forests bring is part of that immersive back to nature experience. With almost 19,000 hectares to explore, Thetford Forest has plenty of space for visitors to explore and create their own wilderness experience.
If you head south in Norfolk or north in Suffolk, then there is a good chance that you will find yourself in the United Kingdom’s largest man-made lowland forest. Thetford Forest is huge, but its network of signposted pathways and trails make it easy to navigate. The main hub at High Lodge is home to many of the activities that the forest has to offer and is a great starting place for those visiting, especially for families.
You can hire mountain bikes from Bike Hart and there are several cycling trails to suit all abilities that start and end at High Lodge. There are more activity options at this central hub; you can test your Robin Hood elbow at Lookout Archery, enjoy a different trail experience on a segway, go higher into the canopies with Go Ape, or pause for refreshments at the picnic area where there is also a nearby cafe and toilets. There is also a large open clearance for children to play in by the picnic area as well as some play areas nearby.
There are a number of walking trails that start out from High Lodge with different lengths and accessibility options to suit your needs. These are well signposted and easy to navigate so you should not run any trouble following these routes. Rather than follow one of the trails we used the OS maps app to find other routes and starting locations within the forest.
There are plenty to choose from; if you take the route out of Lynfords Stag in the north of the forest then you may be lucky enough to spot a red squirrel or one of the four types of dear that are resident here. There is a circular walk from Santon Downham which follows and crosses the Little Ouse River.
We however, headed to the small car park near Thetford Warren Lodge that would take us on a 12km circular walk through the forest, with a halfway stop at High Lodge for refreshments and a break for lunch. Thetford Warren Lodge was built around 1400 and has quite an unusual history. The substantial tower house would have been home to ‘warreners’ which are or were gatekeepers who managed large rabbit warrens.
Rabbits were not as commonly found in England as they are now and were a prized delicacy for both their meat and fur during these times. This whole area would have looked very different back then, with flat open land to gaze across. The narrow openings of the lodge walls suggest how the building may have been used by the gamekeepers to keep a watchful eye out for predators and poachers looking to relieve them of their stock.
Soon after leaving the lodge we were making our way through the beech trees which line this far edge of the forest, before the scenery changed to what would be a much familiar view for the majority of our walk, a network of wide pathways and dense blocks of pines towering out of carpets of ferns. The forest is lovely here and peaceful, and away from the main hub we encountered only the odd person crossing or cycling across our pathway.
In this quiet corner of the forest the tall pines swallow up the sound so that all you can hear is your own footsteps and the song of passing birds. Many animals make this place their home although of course the dense forest means that they are often difficult to find. There is roe, red, muntjac, and fallow deer which like to feast on young trees, so the Forestry Commission must work hard to protect them by fencing some of the development areas.
There are badgers, foxes, hedgehogs and other small mammals busying away under the protection of the large green fern leaves. Birdlife and butterflies were much more visible than mammals on our stroll around the forest. We were not lucky enough to see one of the goshawks that nest in the forest, but we did see a buzzard circling above as well as all manner of small birds.
Thetford Forest was created after the first World War to help replenish wood stocks lost in the war effort. Human beings have often had a detrimental impact upon our natural environment through deforestation over the course of the last century, so it is pleasing to see the positive difference that we can make on improving our natural environment.
The Future Forest sculptural installation that has been in place at the forest since 2019, reflects the important part forests play in our natural environment and the role we and future generations have in safeguarding our forests. The exhibition consists of 10 life size sculptures in dramatic situations that can be found on a mile-long trail from High Lodge, and they provoke thought about our relationship with our natural surroundings.
Our walk took us through High Lodge, where we got chance to see all the activities that were available at the forest centre before we disappeared back into the serenity of one of the quiet forest trails. Before long we were on the last leg of our trek back past Thetford Warren Lodge and back to our car. Thetford Forest has so much to offer, and you could plot hundreds of different walking routes through the forest without ever retracing the same steps. If you are passing through Norfolk or Suffolk, then you should make some time to explore it for yourself.