From Heath to Fen to Broad

Continuing the series of Broads’ posts: An easy and enjoyable, 10 mile, walk through varied terrain, beginning on the acidic sandy soils ENE of Norwich through to the miry fens and the Broads that nestle amongst the marshes along the southern banks of the River Bure.

Map 1 Blofield to Uption

Map 1: The Walk: Blofield Heath to Upton Broad

To begin . . .

Blofield Heath

I alighted the bus at Blofield Heath—cos that’s as far as the service goes. Today, the village here is known as Blofield Corner. But way back in 1881, when the area was surveyed for an OS map, its name was given as Hemblington Corner, which suggests a change in parish boundaries.

It’s not the first time I’ve visited here. A few weeks back, I walked from here, in a more-or-less straight line, due east to Acle, and was surprised to see bluebells growing along the way. Bluebells are a marker of old or relict woodland, not of heathland. So how come? I wondered, could the answer be found in the history of the Heath.

Bluebells on Blofield Heath

Bluebells on Blofield Heath; photo taken 29th April 2017

In all likelihood, Blofield Heath was the ‘moot hill’ of the old Hundred of Blofield. Generally, the Hundreds were named for these ‘moot hills’, and the ‘moot hills’ tended to be close to the edge of the Hundred. Three such Hundreds meet at Blofield Heath (Taverham, Walsham and Blofield). Here was an important place, locally.

Blofield, its etymology:

The earliest spellings I’ve found are those given in Domesday Book: Blafelda and Blawefelda.

The shared suffix is the easy part: felda, open country (as opposed to forest); level land (as opposed to hilly). While from late C10th this might be applied to arable land, generally it’s taken to mean heathland.

However, the two prefixes—Bla- and Blawe-—present more of a problem.

The first could be Old Norse blár (this is in an area much settled by Danes). If so, we’ve a choice of ‘cold and exposed’ (which seems most fitting a heath), or ‘blue; dark’. Since open land is seldom ‘dark’ we can ignore that suggestion. But ‘blue’?

The second prefix, blawe-, however, seems to support the Old Norse ‘blue’. For, according to the Institute of Name-Studies’ site, Key to English Place-names, blāw is Old English ‘blue’.

Others, jumping on this, have suggested that the ‘blue’ in question was woad. But, while other dye-plants grow wild hereabouts (weld, reseda luteola, and madder), never no woad. In fact, my field guide says it’s just not seen in this part of country.

So if the blāw wasn’t OE ‘blue’—what was it?

I decided to try it a different way. I checked on the online Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.  Ah-ha! This was more like it.

Although blǽwen is given as ‘light blue’, in delving deeper I found bláwan:

(of a place) ‘to have wind blowing in it’

And further:

‘of the wind’
(of living creatures) ‘to blow, breathe’
‘to emit air’
‘to blow, sound’ (of a trumpet)
(of fire) ‘to flame, blaze’

The example given is Bytte bláwan fulle windes.


bláwende, ‘blustering, with high winds’

All of which tallies neatly with the Old Norse blár, ‘cold and exposed’.

Ribwort Plantain

Ribwort Plantain, a plant typical of heathland; photo taken between Blofield Heath and Hemblington

But I am disappointed that I had to turn to the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary when almost certainly the fellows at the Institute of Name-Studies would have used the same source. But, ho-hum, hey.

So, back to the history . . .


Today, Mousehold Heath stops far short of the parishes of Blofield and Hemblington. But it wasn’t always so.

While today’s Mousehold is 184 acres of heathland, woodland and ‘recreational open space’ to the north-northeast of Norwich, in Tudor times it the heath had stretched as far north as South Walsham (see map below).

Faden crop of Mousehold

Map 2: showing extent of Mousehold Heath in 1797, and site of ‘Petty Mill’

Even by 1779 it still reached as far as Woodbastwick despite it being nibbled away by the inexorable chug of the enclosure movement (which, contrary to popular belief, began way back in C14th, only culminating in the Parliamentary Enclosure Acts of the mid C19th).
Of course, private ownership didn’t stop people exercising their traditional rights to the heath. We’re talking of the ever-rebellious Norfolk folk here.

Mousehold has been the focus of at least two major rebellions: the Norfolk arm of the Peasants’ Revolt (1381); and, in 1549, Kett’s Rebellion (which, incidentally, despite it was sparked by the spate of enclosures that followed the acquisition, post-Dissolution, of various church lands, enclosure itself didn’t even rate a mention in Kett’s list of thirty-nine demands).

Mosehold post enclosure

Mousehold—post ‘Enclosure’

As late as the 1900s the heath was still open countryside, kept that way by the grazing of animals, the wild-reap of bedding and fodder for winter livestock, and the gathering of household fuel (yea, there were trees, just not ‘woodland’). But times were changing, traditional activities falling away. Left ‘uncropped’ the one-time open heath reverted to scrub and, yeah, woodland.


Recently-shorn Alpaca looking cute. A modern use of the former heath

Twenty years previous, in response to an increasing (Victorian) awareness of the importance of open spaces in cities, Mousehold had been given into the care of Norwich City Council (1880). For the benefit of their citizens. And so it remains.

But those deep-blue beds of bluebells—in open country where they shouldn’t be!—can they really be a regeneration after . . . how many centuries?

Mousehold, its etymplogy

The author of the Wiki article on Mousehold Heath, citing an article in the Eastern Daily Press (April 15, 2010 ) suggests the heath takes its name from Anglo-Saxon moch-holt, i.e. thick wood.

Not only is this at odds with the Blofield name but AS moc (the only form I can find) translates as ‘muck’, as in dung.

However, in Middle English moch equates to our word ‘much’. Though perhaps ‘great wood’ would be a better translation than ‘thick wood’.

So, Blofield was a heath, but Mousehold a wood? Might that explain the bluebells!

A second suggestion for its etymology is moss-wold.

From the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary:

mos, a moss, a marshy place
as in In ðæt micle mos; of ðæm mose (Cod. Dip. Kmbl. iii. 121, 19.)

This, then, gives the Anglo-Saxon name for Mousehold, not as a ‘great wood’ but a ‘marshy wood’.

Yet, a ‘marshy wood’ upon a heath? Might we find explanation for that?

Mousehold Heath is a glacial outwash with no obvious water source. Yet rain falling upon the sand-and-gravel soil must drain away somewhere. In fact, it feeds into two small ‘runs’, one flowing northward, the other to south. While this southern ‘run’ is marked on maps as Witton Run, the northern ‘run’ has no name that I can find. But since it rises north of the tiny hamlet of Pedham, I’m calling it the Pedham Run. And I believe it was from that—the Pedham Run—that Mousehold acquired its ‘marshy wood’ name. I shall explain . . .


Pedham isn’t mentioned in Domesday Book. The earliest mention I can find is in Francis Blomefield’s An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, Langley Town and Abbey in Volume 10 (London, 1809), pp. 147-152.

“Hermer, son of Richard, gives to God, and the church of the Holy Trinity of Norwich 20s. rent out of his mill in Pedeham, belonging to the manor of Langley, for the soul of Richard (prior of Norwich) his brother, and the souls of his father, &c. and of Richard de Wirmegay, his lord, to keep the anniversary of his brother Richard by name yearly, in the said church, and Richard de Wirmegaye confirmed it, the prior being his uncle; this was about 1150.”

The next mention comes in the Pipe Roll of 1176 and 1177. (Historical Gazetteer of English Place-Names )

But neither of these give much information. Better is the Norfolk Heritage Explorer site:

Record No 15619:
Site of ‘Petty Mill’, ‘Peaty Mill Dam’ or ‘Pedeham’
post medieval watermill.

The mill is marked on Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk (see Map 2); also on the 1836 (1st edition) Ordnance Survey map (which I don’t have), on which said ‘Petty Mill’ is shown sited on an overflow stream from Pedham lake.

The Norfolk Heritage report goes on to note that in the c.1150 Langley bequest of rent for a mill at ‘Pedeham’ (as quoted in part by Blomefield) the lake’s name is given as ‘Peaty Mill Dam’. They suggest the more recent name of Pedham might be a corruption of this. Does seem likely.

This ‘Pedham Run’ stands out clear on Map 1 (my version of the 1881 OS map). If Mousehold took its name from a mossy-wood, or marshy grove, there can be no other place but here.

Which provides a neat segue to the . . .

A track across former Mousehold

Heading for a meeting with Pedham Run . . .

Walsham Fen

Walsham Fen straddles Pedham Run. Owned by Norfolk County Council, this 3.7 acres site has been a local nature reserve since 1988. The site has every imaginable environment: fen-meadow, tall-herb fen, stream, ditches, ponds, carr, scrub. Yet I had passed it twice on previous walks without venturing in. This time, I took the plunge and am glad I did.

Fen meadow flora

Fen meadow flora at Walsham Fen

For long the fen had been used for rough summer grazing—cattle and horses. Regular mowing of the fen ensured sweet palatable grass while deterring the less digestible sedge. The mown grasses, rushes and sedge were then used as marsh litter and hay. However, attempts during C20th to improve the drainage only resulted in shrinkage of the formerly water-logged peat (as also happened in the Fens). But then, when the drainage was abandoned, the unattended drains choked with vegetation and by 1980s the fen had become too wet for grazing or mowing. Its only use then was a game-shoot. It was only in becoming a nature reserve that this rich and unique environment was saved.

Cuckoo flower

The Cuckooflower . . . inhabitant of fenny meadows . . .

I’m not going to list its species-rich flora. Sufficient to say, the whole gamut of a fen-meadow community is here; while the stream holds yet more varieties. All of which attracts birds and insects, (15 species of butterfly, 10 species of dragonfly recorded to date) and, of course, small and large mammals, and the occasional grass-snake (which now are quite rare).

And on to the Broads . . .

South Walsham Broad

South Walsham (the village) has two churches—they sit side-by-side, sharing a graveyard—because in times of yore there were two parishes (St Mary and St Lawrence). Likewise, South Walsham Broad features two parts, a private Inner Broad, and the open, outer, broad accessed from the River Bure via Fleet Dyke.

I have visited here several times, and in all seasons; a great place, with walks along the Fleet and into the marshes. Boats are available for day-hire, and even canoes. But even without a boat the water still is accessible. On this occasion, I found myself a conveniently sited bench to eat lunch—and was treated to the enchanting spectacle of ‘mother and father’ Egyptian Goose (aka Spectacled Geese) taking their young progeny out for a swim on the Broad. See photos.

Egyptian Goose, male

Father Egyptian Goose (gander) looking concernedly at . . . ?

Egyptian Goose with goslings

Mother Egyptian Goose and two goslings looking concernedly at . . . ?

Egyptian Goose, Gander and 3 goslings

Ah-ha, so there are THREE goslings, and one had already taken the dive! And now as a family they’re off . . . I wonder, to where? Is this the last I shall see of them?

Egyptian Geese family

But no. Wait! They are returning. Escaping the aggro from Mr Mallard?

Egyptian Geese family 2

All safely returned. Phew!

And on to the next . . .

Upton Fen and Broad

I visited here way back in winter (20 January)—or at least I skirted the reserve (along a very muddy track only passable in places because it was frozen). Now, May 10th, and following an exceptionally dry spring, I thought it might be possible to venture deeper into the reserve without risk of getting stuck in the mire.

Upton Fen 1

Upton Fen, and the spring-greening of new reed growth is a welcome change from the muted tones of winter last time I called here

Alas, not. Despite the corduroy paths provided, many are in bad repair, in places the wood rotted away else sank deep into the mud. I know the damselflies here are worth the visit, many are rare, but the thought of squelching my way home in soggy shoes . . .

I confess, these damselfly photos were taken elsewhere, and this past week (31st May 2017) but this seemed an appropriate place to show them.

Large Red Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly on a burdock leaf

Banded Demoiselle

A male Banded Demoiselle almost entirely hidden amongst the vegetation

Banded Demoiselle female

A female Banded Demoiselle, excellently camouflaged in the reeds

Beautiful Demoiselle, male and female

Beautiful Demoiselles, the male blue, the female green, seen here with the midday sunlight shining through their chitinous wings

Common Blue Damselfly

Common Blue Damselfly

So I kept to a path that hugs the southern bounds of the reserve. And discovered a magical woodland. Even so, you can see how wet by the boards laid for walking.

Wet woodland Upton Fen

The wet woodland that fringes the southern edges of Upton Fen

And so, I have yet to reach Upton Broad.

From there it was through the village and across the fields to Acle, and a bus home.

About crispina kemp

Spinner of Asaric and Mythic tales
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