Brandon Country Park is a hugely popular ‘gateway’ to Breckland and attracts 180,000 visitors a year. As John Grant reports, their experience is set to become even better.

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Brandon Country Park looks set to have an exciting future – and it has a fascinating past.

In 1820, when Edward Bliss acquired the land that was eventually to become the park, it was 2,500 acres of open heathland, devoid of trees and maintained by rabbits and sheep.

In a classic example of how the human relationship with the environment has changed over the years, Bliss’s ambition was to “improve” on this wild landscape - today that open wilderness would be revered as an important element of Breckland’s distinctive character.

Bliss’s ambition was, however, very much in keeping with the English gentry’s desire at the time to manipulate landscapes and stamp them with the landowner’s own personality, often as an expression of wealth and importance.

Influential businessman Bliss amassed a great fortune by the manufacture of gunflints during the Napoleonic Wars and became High Sheriff of Suffolk. When the wars ended, Brandon, which had been the main supplier of gunflints to the Duke of Wellington’s armies, was in economic depression. Bliss, who was obsessed with creating a wooded park on a grand scale, was able to call on the huge local unemployed workforce to plant some eight million trees in just six months. Most of the trees were plantations and shelterbelts of larches and Scots pine. However, Bliss also created an arboretum, using exotic trees collected from many parts of the world.

Bliss died in 1845 and was interred, as was his wife Sarah, in the estate’s mausoleum. Their remains now lie in Brandon churchyard and the unusual “starved Gothic-style” mausoleum, an increasingly rare type of building, is a big attraction for country park visitors.

The park stayed in Bliss family ownership until 1903 and the last private owner sold it to the Forestry Commission in 1936.

Previously, by the end of the First World War, the park had fallen into neglect. The war had been a economic disaster for the British government, which was desperate for Britain to become self-sufficient in timber, and a programme of lowland forest creation began throughout England – including Thetford Forest.

The Forestry Commission sold Brandon Park’s mansion, its walled garden, an entrance lodge and about 33 acres of surrounding parkland to the then West Suffolk District Council. The authority was dissolved in 1974 and the park became the responsibility of Suffolk County Council.

The mansion, built in Regency style by Bliss and now a Grade II listed building, is now a private nursing home, separate from the park.

In addition to its rich and varied wooded landscape, Brandon Country Park now boasts a significant area of heathland as a near-neighbour and connected by a trail, following a successful reversion from commercial forestry use. The area has gone from heath to forest – and then back to heath again.

The design of Brandon Country Park’s new logo in a newly announced and ambitious improvement programme for the immensely popular Breckland site could scarcely be more appropriate.

The firecrest – which just about ties with its close cousin the goldcrest as the UK’s smallest bird species - is a dazzling little woodland jewel. So is the 32-acre park, which lies south of Brandon, surrounded by Thetford Forest and the Breckland Forest Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Chris Burton, the park’s new manager, is fully aware of just how appropriate the choice of the species is. “Firecrests are very attractive birds that have loads of character – they seem to punch above their weight because they really are tiny but they always make a very big impression on anyone who sees them.

“They are lively little jewels and I think Brandon Country Park is a jewel in the crown of the Brecks. The park also seems to punch above its weight as there is so much to enjoy here in a relatively small area.

“Firecrests are special birds and this is a special place. The British firecrest population is said to be something like 1,000 pairs and Thetford Forest holds about 10%. Brandon Country Park regularly holds 10 pairs each summer and a few remain during winter, so it is a very important site for the species, along with all its other fantastic wildlife.”

The choice of a new logo for the park is not only appropriate in terms of the species it features – it also helps to mark a new phase in the site’s long and illustrious history.

Attracting about 180,000 visitors every year, the park is one of Suffolk County Council’s most popular public assets.

The council has drawn up an extensive improvement plan following its decision last year to retain management of the site - a move that was taken following negotiations and close co-operation with Forest Heath District Council, which provides some funding for the park.

Mr Burton has taken up his post as park manager following his management of the successful Managing a Masterpiece project, a three-year £910,000 scheme funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund that aimed to conserve, celebrate and improve understanding of the Stour Valley.

He will oversee the improvements to the park and said they would combine to enhance the visitor experience on the site. “We are re-branding and re-investing,” he said.

“Brandon Country Park is already a perfect place from which visitors can start exploring the Brecks - it is a sort of gateway as it is close to so many of the Brecks’ special places, such as Grimes Graves and West Stow Country Park and Anglo-Saxon Village,” he said.

The improvement plan includes expansion of the park’s Copper Beech tea rooms and the introduction of a new menu that will strongly feature local produce.

A new park advisory group has been established that includes several organisations and park user groups. It will support and advise the county council on the future management of the site.

The park’s extensive network of footpaths and orienteering trails was being improved and new events are being planned to add to the already extensive programme.

In addition, Breaking New Ground, the hugely significant £2million Landscape Partnership Scheme that covers the central part of the Brecks and is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will be based at the park. The three-year project will conserve, celebrate and record the natural and cultural heritage of the Brecks and seeks to reconnect communities with the area’s special landscape.

Mr Burton said the park contained features such as an ornamental lake that was now managed for wildlife and was a haven for amphibians and many other aquatic species - including great crested newt - open lawns, a Gothic-looking mausoleum built by Edward Bliss, who acquired the site in 1820 and later planted it as a park, an arboretum, a tree and history trail and a tranquil walled garden.

The site’s wildlife diversity was “outstanding”, said Mr Burton.

In addition to its firecrest population, the park’s birdlife included crossbills, siskins, nuthatches and occasionally goshawks in its woodland areas, kingfishers dashed around the lake and the nationally scarce woodlark and nightjar were of special interest on an outlying heathland area.

Mammals present included muntjac, roe and red deer. Bat species recorded in the park included pipistrelles, brown long-eared and noctule. Adders, grass snakes and lizards could often be seen basking, there was an impressive range of fungi species and the park’s range of tree species was “spectacular,” he added.

Nick Dickson, the park’s interim senior ranger who is leading the Breaking New Ground project as its manager, was in no doubt about the site’s significance for wildlife and for people and its place as one of Suffolk’s top visitor attractions.

“Brandon Country Park presents one of those rare opportunities for families to have a cheap day out in the countryside with amazing opportunities to learn about the history and wildlife of the Brecks,” he said.

“The park has facilities for all ages and enough variety to keep everyone busy all day, whether it’s the children’s play area, the arboretum, the walled gardens, the lake, the cycling and walking routes, the woodland or the cafe.

“The next year will also see the development of a raft of exciting events to enable young and old visitors to get even more out of their visit.

“As part of our revamp we are now also on Facebook where we are encouraging everyone to share their experiences and join in the conversation.”

Mr Dickson’s views were echoed by Richard Smith, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for economic development, environment and planning.

“I am keen to see the roll-out of the planned improvements to this well-loved park,” he said.

He paid tribute to Forest Heath District Council’s support in the park’s management over the past two years while negotiations about the site’s future had taken place.

“Brandon Country Park is a fantastic asset to west Suffolk and to the people of Brandon particularly,” Mr Smith said. “It has always welcomed all members of the public, whether young or old, and offers a wide range of amenities, events and volunteer programmes. I am keen to see this good work continued through the new management.”

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