Today Swaffham is a pretty market town with a centre full of beautiful Georgian houses and shop fronts, with pubs, old coaching inns and coffee houses as well as the old columned and domed market cupola our routes start and finish at.
Historically, it almost certainly has a prehistoric origin and while there are no obvious Roman remains several Roman roads pass very close to the town. It gained its name from south west German ‘Swabian’ settlers who were part of the Anglo-Saxon invasion and it continued to grow in importance through the medieval period as a trade and pilgrimage route as well as a centre for the local wool trade.
The town sits on a slight rise in the otherwise flat area and the Georgian era saw its reputation as ‘somewhere to take the air’ bolstered with an Assembly room, theatre, pleasure gardens and racecourse. As a result, Lady Nelson preferred to live here because the Burnham’s in North Norfolk were too quiet. The surrounding Breckland (Brecks are fields allowed to return to heath) landscape hasn’t changed much since those times either, making it a wonderful area explore by cycling both on and off road.
When you need to feed your appetite, surrender your taste buds to scones in the gardens of sumptuous Tudor stately homes, fine local produce in farm shops or artisan bakeries in town.
When you’re done exploring for the day, you can choose from an equally eclectic mix of places to stay: from campsites to youth hostels or hotels where aristocrats and royals once stayed.
Swaffham provides a great base from which to explore the surrounding countryside and the rich history that the area has to offer. We’ve aimed to keep our routes to a leisurely distance, but there’s potential to expand each one to take in even more treasures of Norfolk.
Swaffham is a bustling town by Norfolk standards, but you’ll soon realise this timeless county runs at a lot more relaxed and restful pace than the rest of the country. The Georgian centre has lots to explore including the old market cross, the church of St Peter and Paul with its rare ‘Angel’ roof and a town museum with an exhibition on local hero Howard Carter who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. A Saturday market and twice monthly farmers market continue its trading history while the EcoTech Centre has an organic garden and two wind turbines, one with a viewing platform which provides amazing panoramic views of the area.
As well as charming local shops and places to eat and stay, Swaffham also has several supermarkets, doctors, pharmacies and an electric bike shop, making it a great starting point for our routes.
There are no direct train services to Swaffham but you can get a bus from the stations at Downham Market or Kings Lynn which are less than two hours journey from London.
By road Swaffham is just off the A47 between Kings Lynn and Norwich and 20 miles north from the A11 at Thetford. Be prepared to be patient though as Norfolk roads run at a relaxed pace.
Sandringham: Romans, Kings, Queens and Castles (Length: 51miles / 82km)
This route 82km route takes you across farmland, through woods and sandscapes into the hidden gem that is Kings Lynn before moving north on urban cycle paths to the conservation village of Castle Rising. You’ll then roll through parkland to the Queen’s country residence at Sandringham.
From here, the route heads onto the Roman road based Peddars Way National Trail before turning south to Castle Acre. This picturesque medieval village is bookended by huge castle earthworks at one end and the extensive ruins of a Cluniac Priory at the other. Roll out though a portcullised Medieval gateway and over or through an idyllic ford for the final minimal traffic miles home along the Peddars Way, empty roads and a secret bridleway sneak into Swaffham.
Downham Market: Drains, Trains and Planes (Length: 47 miles / 76km)
This all-road route heads east from Swaffham to Downham Market. The pretty market town is not only a great stop at just over halfway round the loop but it’s also the nearest railway station to Swaffham. Quiet and relatively flat back roads gently meander through the wide open, wildlife rich fields and woods of the Breckland fen landscape. Stunning Tudor moated manors, Saxon villages with ancient churches, Roman aligned lanes and Downham Market itself reinforce the rich past of this area.
The route can be joined into the Sandringham loop for a large cycle loop and the finish offers you a choice too. A road loop north through Narborough and its surrounding woodlands or an off-road finish along broad farm tracks and forest roads through Swaffham Heath if you’ve got the tyres for it.
Dereham: Meandering to market (Length: 40miles / 64km)
This 61km loop runs north from Swaffham joining the same Roman road as the Downham Market loop but heading in the opposite direction over the hill for amazing panoramic views of the medieval planned village of Castle Acre. The route then follows the beautiful shallow Nar valley past prehistoric sites, ancient churches, medieval manors and through timeless villages. Curve south into the fascinating village of Gressenhall and then weave round grass centred lanes into Dereham, the largest town in north Norfolk and a lively change of pace from the tranquil lanes you’ve been drifting along. There’s no shortage of history to take in here, from Bronze Age axes to Zeppelin raids and at just over halfway it’s a great place to refuel and rest awhile.
From Dereham you glide west past more moats and medieval halls along deserted roads and unspoilt flint and brick-built villages. There’s also a recommended detour to visit the incredible 11th century wall paintings in the restored church that’s the only remaining part of Houghton village. Then it’s time to wind up the gentle gradient past the old nuclear weapon armed airfield at Pickenham before rolling down into Swaffham and up to the market square to finish.
More cycling experiences in Kent, Cornwall and Norfolk
Swaffham 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
Cornwall: Bodmin; Helston; Penzance and Marazion
Kent: Canterbury; Dover; Lenham and Hollingborne; Otford; Wye
Norfolk: Cromer; Diss; Fakenham; Hunstanton; Swaffham; Thetford; Wroxham and Hoveton
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.