Flat doesn’t mean boring! With its big skies, military history and fun forest tracks, Thetford in Norfolk makes for the ideal starting point for some great rides. We highlight three here
If hills and hard work aren’t your thing, Norfolk is the perfect place for cycling – but it certainly isn’t boring.
A rich historical landscape from prehistoric barrows, Roman roads, Viking battles and medieval power struggles to modern day military have all left their marks under the huge arcing skies. The forests and Breckland heaths around Thetford are a natural oasis of timeless tranquillity, and the weather here is almost always drier and warmer than the rest of the UK.
Our three Thetford routes each explore a different aspect of the landscape and history of this fascinating area. The longest loop follows the edges of the military ranges to the north which are ironically an incredible peaceful and wildlife rich area of heathland and forestry.
The second is a mix of quiet back roads, sandy forest tracks and old Roman roads with a whisky distillery thrown in for, ahem, ‘good measure’. The third route heads west into the famous Thetford Forest, making the most of some mellow ‘mountain bike’ trails and the cycle hub to provide variety and hire options.
All the routes have a gentle off-road – or gravel – element to make the most of the area’s ‘wilderness’ feel and ancient trackways. There are no significant technical MTB-style challenges though.
This means you’ll be fine on a hybrid or touring bike with no previous off-road experience, while the shorter routes are ideal for beginners or younger explorers. If you’d rather stay on back roads, it’s easy to modify the routes – particularly 1 and 2 – to stay entirely on tarmac while still dodging busy arterial roads.
Thetford’s position as the gateway to Norfolk means it’s a lively town with a diverse population that’s reflected in the shops and restaurants of its busy (well, busy for Norfolk) streets. That creates a real contrast with the remoteness of the surrounding area and also gives you lots of options when it comes to places to eat or stay.
Thetford is a key stopping point on the new Cycling UK Rebellion Way long-distance route around the blissful biking, rich history and natural calm of Norfolk. Thetford is also our seventh EXPERIENCE hub in Norfolk, alongside Diss, Fakenham, Swaffham, Hoveton/Wroxham, Hunstanton and Cromer.
Routes 1 and 2 are easy to link into routes radiating out from the other Cycling UK experience hubs at Diss to the east and Swaffham to the north too so there are all sorts of expansion options to work with.
Judging from archaeology, Thetford has been a settlement from at least the Iron Age. Its position at the junction of the Rivers Ouse and Thet and local archaeology from as far back as Neanderthal times suggests its origins may well be even older.
The area has certainly been a focal point for anything happening since too, with significant sites - including two castles and several abbeys – from Neolithic, Bronze Age, Roman, Saxon, Viking, Norman and Medieval periods. There are several museums and memorials celebrating this glorious past. It was also home to filming for the iconic Home Guard sitcom Dad’s Army.
While it was hit hard by the dissolution of its monasteries by Henry VIII, Thetford became important again as a military centre during the two World Wars. It was still only a small town until its population was doubled in the 1950s by planned population migration from London. The diverse population today creates a vibrant melting pot atmosphere and you’ll hear many different languages on the streets today.
The Lone Ranger (42 miles)
The longest loop out of the EXPERIENCE hub, this route traces Thetford’s recent military past. It follows the edges of military ranges to the north, but don’t expect it to be a battle or have explosives and guns firing. In fact, 80 years of military occupation of the area has preserved it as an incredibly peaceful and wildlife-rich area of heathland and forestry.
It offers an amazing ‘middle of nowhere’ experience for those seeking hour after hour of solitude and immersion in nature. We should probably advise you to pack your pockets extra full, as apart from a coffee kiosk at the beautiful Lynford Arboretum (look out for Hawfinches!), there’s not really anywhere to stop and refuel until you get to the very top of the route.
The plus side is that you’ll barely see any traffic even on the road sections; you just need to watch out for the A1065 main road crossing at the Desert Rats memorial with its dramatic tank guard and then again – after a lovely bit of sandy singletrack – a bit further north. Crossing back over takes you towards Great and Little Cressingham and then Watton, where you’ll be able to choose from a wide range of places to fill your belly and your pockets for the ride south.
Quiet back lanes and forgotten villages lead you onto the Peddars Way Roman road alignment and a chance to extend the route by joining with Route 2. Otherwise it’s a prehistoric and medieval past that you’ll be rolling through alongside the last of the range perimeters before rolling back into north Thetford.
Whisky Galore (27 miles)
Yes whisky. In the middle of Norfolk. Not just any whisky either, but award-winning drams from the oldest whisky distillery in England.
That’s not the only highlight of this wander eastwards from Thetford. We’ve got the mysterious rain-independent filling and refilling of the Devil’s Punchbowl. The deep sandpit challenges of the Hereward Way through the forests of Croxton Heath. Prehistoric barrows alongside Roman roads and cunning shortcuts past paintball battle zones to sneak under main roads.
You’ll even dodge a looming supermarket by diving through the hedge of a garden centre at one point. But don’t worry – it’s all official and the whole route rounds off with a lap of the mound of Thetford’s Norman castle.
While it doesn’t have quite the almost spooky solitude and unexpected wildness of Route 1, Route 2 isn’t big on places to stop either. The only reasonably sized spot with a variety of food and drink options is East Harling which sits at just over halfway round. Those early sandy sections mean you’re going to be burning most of your calories early on too. So fuel up in advance in Thetford, or at least fill your pockets before you’re stomach rumbling along the Roman road like I was on the recce ride.
If this all sounds a bit stressful and strenuous then: it really isn’t, as you can walk the short sandy bits not much slower than you’ll probably ride them; and it’s very easy to miss out the off-road sections altogether and still have a super ride. Just be sure to double back slightly from East Harling so you stay clear of the A1066 on the homeward leg.
Thetford Forest Loop (21 miles)
One of the big frustrations with Thetford was always the fact that it sits right on the border of a massive forest with brilliant riding opportunities but it’s almost impossible to safely link the two. The recent arrival of a cycle path alongside the A11 means getting from town to trees no longer means a semi-suicidal dive into dual carriageway traffic though.
That’s the way this route begins: paralleling the main road to Elveden, before bridging over the busy road and past the Center Parcs holiday centre. Staying on the road is a waste of the woods, though, so we join the easy green graded off-road trail as soon as possible. This loops and meanders around the trees, gradually heading north to the activity centre in the most fun way possible.
Here you’ll find a busy café and bike hire facilities and the start of the full Thetford cycle network. If you’re feeling brave you can take on the Blue- and even Red-graded mountain bike trails that have been purpose built around the centre and which regularly host races and other events.
You’re free to explore the whole forest and its network of potential traffic-free routes in all directions, whether it’s to Weeting with its castle in the west or north to the fascinating prehistoric flint mine site of Grimes Graves.
As the third option we’ve deliberately kept our offering relatively short, though. So it’s north through the village and forestry admin centre of Santon Downham where Dad’s Army fans will recognise the iron bridge as a star of one episode. Then it’s over the railway line before heading east along easy rolling fire roads through wildlife rich forestry blocks. Pausing briefly to cross the main road before continuing to our old favourite Croxton road. Turn south to roll gently down and up to this beautiful time capsule village before cresting over the main road and down into Thetford to complete the ride.
Set on the main road from London to Norwich and centre for the surrounding area, Thetford has a full range of amenities that make it a great hub. There are several supermarkets for stocking up on supplies as well as a selection of smaller shops and independent and chain cafés and coffee shops.
There’s a Halfords and an independent bike shop in town, as well as a hire centre at Thetford Forest High Lodge which has ‘all ability’ cycles. The forest also has other attractions such as Go Ape and Center Parcs to keep the family amused off the bike.
Thetford is on the London to Norwich line, with trains taking an average of 90 minutes from Liverpool Street Station. If you’re driving from the south take the M11 then A11 to Thetford. From the Midlands head for Cambridge and then join the A11. From the north head for King’s Lynn from the A1 and then follow the A10 and A134 south.
More cycling experiences in Kent, Cornwall and Norfolk
Thetford is just one of our highlighted locations that's perfect for cycling. Here's Cycling UK's full set of cycle-friendly hubs, with accredited facilities and promoted routes.
EXPERIENCE is a €23.3 million project co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF, €16 million) through the Interreg VA France (Channel) England Programme 2014-2020, boosting visitor numbers in six pilot regions across England and France. This project will harness the experiential tourism trend to extend the season (October – March), generating 20 million new off-season visitors spending €1 billion across the Channel region by June 2023.