Photo gallery: How one man’s vision led to the natural playground of Burlingham Woodland Walks
- Credit: copyright: Archant 2014
Making our rendez-vous in front of North Burlingham's landmark St Andrew's Church it is clear from the number of muddy foot (and paw) prints that the vision of Dr Gerry Barnes is being embraced by the public.
However, that said, it is equally certain that the straggle of mid-week ramblers does not represent the majority of the great Norfolk public.
There are countless families in Norwich and Great Yarmouth - my own included until fairly recently - who still have not the slightest inkling of just what a treasure lies on their doorstep, conveniently placed by the A47.
Miles of scenic footpaths, many suitable for wheelchairs and mobility scooters, take you through new woods and orchards - pick the fruit in season! - and wildflower meadows that are swarming with insect life in the late spring sunshine.
And as you are serenaded along the way by the abundant birdlife, there are plenty of man-made attractions to complement nature's design.
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Children love to follow the sculpture trail and take rubbings from bronze plaques depicting local scenes, while Acle Academy students' bio-degradable artwork makes for a surreal discovery in the woodland. The latest addition has been the installation of two intriguing sundials.
My guide around a small section of the walks is trails officer Andy Williams who is proud to have seen the project flourish like the statuesque 300-year-old oaks we pass, which hark back to the site's history as a country estate.
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Although an important figure in the project's development, he acknowledges that it has been very much the vision of his former manager Dr Barnes, retired head of Norfolk County Council's environment team.
The 3,000 acre estate was acquired by Norfolk County Council in the early years of the 20th century and became part of a scheme to provide farms for heroes returning from the First World War.
However, it was a natural calamity that sowed the seeds for Dr Barnes' grand design - the great storm of October 1987.
Mr Williams' colleague, David Yates, the senior trails development officer, explained: 'Many trees were blown down and selling the wood provided money for planting and to create access. It was a catalyst for change.'
Over nearly two decades, a partnership between the county council, Broadland District Council, the Forestry Commission, landowners and tenants has seen a network of paths develop to connect the communities of North Burlingham, Lingwood, Hemblington, South Walsham and Acle.
Mr Williams said: 'It would be true to say that these woodlands have been created by people power.
'Hundreds of local community volunteers, from brownies and cubs to members of Acle Lands Trust and Blofield and District Conservation Group have been involved.'
Wending our way past the Acle Academy artwork - sculptures and tree-hanging mobiles that provide homes for wildlife, explained Mr Williams - we arrive at the first orchard with the trees still in blossom.
It is here that he points out a thoughtfully-placed 'swap box' where picnicking families can leave and collect books and magazines.
He lifts out a visitors' comments book and highlights the overwhelmingly positive reaction: 'We will be back soon...Thank you for keeping England like it should be.'
Further along the trail, Mr Williams points out one of the bronze plaque statues installed in 2009.
It depicts a 17th century scene of tenants and farm workers sitting in a tree in protest at pay and conditions on Burlingham Hall Estate.
Finally, after passing through a glade carpeted with bluebells, we arrive at the site of a splendid granite sundial.
Installed last year in an elevated position in a wooded clearing at Austin's Wood, between Burlingham Green and South Walsham, it has five faces, each of which carries a gnomon - which projects the shadow - and markings to show the time.
It was designed by David Payne, a local, self-taught sundial enthusiast, and carved out of granite by South Burlingham stonemasons, Abbey Memorials.
It took two years from drawing board to installation to complete and is the second modern sundial at Burlingham Woods.
The first, at Jubilee Wood just to the west of Acle, is an 'interactive' analemmatic horizontal sundial created in 2007, where the shadow of the observer acts as the gnomon.
Mr Payne said: 'Burlingham Woods are ideal for sundials as there is sufficient space to catch the sun all the year round. In an urban setting, sundials can get hemmed in by new buildings, which means they often don't work well.'
He volunteered his time free, and NCC's environment team funded the sundial's manufacture and installation. There are no ongoing maintenance costs and the sundial will last for decades for the benefit of many generations.
Paying tribute to the latest initiative, Mr Williams said: 'The sundials bring a new dimension to visits to Burlingham and are a draw for tourists as well as locals.'
A further two sundials are planned in a project inspired by six medieval examples to be seen on churches within the Burlingham woodlands area.
Mr Yates said: 'With all the new housing being planned it is all the more important to create these green spaces.'
He said projects were under way to use Norfolk's trails in programmes to tackle health conditions such as obesity.
Duncan Slade, a land agent for NPS Property Consultants, which manages NCC's County Farm Estate of which Burlingham represents a small part, said: 'Our rural estate provides many opportunities for partnership working and for innovation. With our colleagues in the environment team we work with our tenants to conserve the historic landscape and to identify opportunities to enhance biodiversity.'
He said it was hoped to make further improvements at Burlingham and they were currently seeking grant funding from the Forestry Commission.
Mr Williams said: 'There are now miles of walks people can enjoy and they even connect on to other paths, including the Weavers' Way.'
A firm believer in the health-giving power of nature, he said the woods were even used by social services staff to take people with mental health conditions on therapeutic walks.
'There really is something at Burlingham to suit everyone. From the sculpture trail to bridleways for horses, lots of walks for all ages and abilities, stunning countryside settings and wonderful Norfolk wildlife, Burlingham ticks all the boxes. We hope more people will come and discover for themselves what a gem this is,' he said.