Breckland is characterised by its dry soils, open landscapes and lines of twisted pines. It is the pines that you first notice as you enter Breckland from the southwest, tracking up the slight incline and away from the richer soils beyond.
These pines are the ghost of an older landscape, deliberately planted as hedgerows but left untended, allowed to develop into mature trees. Some of the trees are heavily contorted, as if shaped by the wind, while others stand upright with a degree of formality. Some are closely spaced, others separated; some planted on a slight bank, others not. It is likely that the pines were chosen because they could cope with the light, poor quality soils; with careful management they could be maintained in dwarfed form to produce a hedge.
It is not known precisely when the pine rows were planted but the available evidence suggests that they were first established some time after 1800, around the time of enclosure within much of Breckland but not directly related to it. The peak period of planting probably happened between 1815 and 1820 but it certainly continued to at least 1829, when a description of the planting of such a hedge appears in the journal of a certain D. E. Davey, documenting his excursions through the Suffolk Brecks.
Today the remaining pine rows are concentrated within the old parish boundaries of Eriswell, Icklingham, Elevden and Thetford. Others would have disappeared under the plantation forest that was established between the First and Second World Wars, so it is no longer possible to determine how widespread the practice was. That we do not see wider use of Scot’s Pine in this manner suggests that estate owners soon discovered that it was, ultimately, a poor choice for hedging. The agricultural depression that followed may have also contributed to the decline of the rows and most likely explains why the pines were freed from management and allowed to grow-on to their present mature forms.
Looking at the pines it is difficult to associate them with a sense of antiquity. They may be two centuries old but they lack the ‘veteran’ gravitas that one associates with Oak, Yew or Ash. Perhaps their image has been cheapened by the acres of plantation conifers that dominate much of Breckland; wood grown as a crop to be pulped for paper or lashed to the roof racks of Sunday morning DIYers. To me, however, even with their deliberately planted origins, these pines hint at an older landscape, a heathland of scattered trees and sandy soils. It could be said that the pines which mark the gateway to the Brecks have broken free from their hedgerow shackles to take on iconic form.