This all-road route heads west 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. More modern history can be seen with short diversions to the fascinating Denver Sluice complex on the Great Ouse river and the home of the RAF’s most famous squadron - 617 ‘Dambusters’ - at Marham.
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.
Starting from the market square you jump onto a quiet side road straight away and you’re soon descending gently out of town. Crossing the open fields, you’ll clip the corners of the woodland of Cockley Cley. This charming village hosts a Roman lead coffin in the ancient church that was first mentioned in 628AD.
Climbing gently to the south opens up seemingly endless views across the Breckland farmland, with tall Scots pines planted to shelter the sandy soil from wind blow, which helpfully also shelter cyclists too. From here, roll through Gooderstone to Oxborough which is famous for its stunning moated Tudor hall surrounded by ornate gardens and a semi derelict church that contains two unique terracotta coffins. The find of a Bronze Age dagger shows this whole fertile area has deep historic roots. You’ll meander past old windmill sites, farms and churches whilst passing the nature reserve of Oxborough Wood and Boughton village.
Crossing the main road at Stoke Ferry means a short push up a slope on the far side of the embankment which keeps you away from the traffic before zig zagging through the village. Once a busy mooring spot on the River Wissey, Stoke Ferry
Ferry to Sluice
It’s another flat back road drift from Stoke Ferry past the ruins of West Dereham Abbey and around the edge of the country park of Ryston Hall. A quick bike path sneak across the A10 will wake you up though where you then have some options.
Heading south through the old village of Denver with its hall and moated manor site takes you past a large windmill and down to the fascinating Denver Sluice. This is a complex of water management gates and river/canal cuts that helped tame the wandering water courses of the area, particularly the mighty Great Ouse which at 143miles (230km) is the 5th longest river in the UK. It’s also home to the local rowing club and a pretty marina with a pub and picnic area.
If sluices aren’t your thing, you can head straight into Downham Market saving around 7km off the loop. Known as ‘The Gingerbread Town’ due to its distinctive Carr stone buildings, the Saxon town of Downham Market (with church to match) has a railway station, a market square with an eye-catching black and white clock as well as an assortment of shops and cafes to refresh and re-supply at.
From Downham Market the route wanders through quiet villages and hamlets tracking the fen railway and now tidal river north, passing Stowbridge where you can still see the remains of Crabhouse Nunnery. An option is to head along the far side of the river to Wiggenhall Mary Magdalen if you want a chance to see the otters and seals that often appear here and then loop back through Watlington.
The route we’ve listed turns east at Runcton Holme, crossing the A10 and then the A134, passing an old windmill site on the way to Shouldham. The religious importance of this area is underlined by the site of a Gilbertine Priory. Prehistorians will be keen to look for the Iron Age burial and hut circles in the neighbouring fields. For those interested in a short walk off the bike (or a gravel section to play on), detour north following the flint cobble walls of the old hall to Shouldham Warren with its famous rhododendron avenue.
There’s a slight climb to the old farm of Cunnington’s Barn before heading though the village of Marham. You will need to climb up and over Chapel Hill (a dizzying 40m high) if you’re keen to see the home of the RAF’s most famous squadron at RAF Marham though. If the F35 jets are flying, you’ll undoubtedly hear them anyway as you curve around the north of the airfield, joining a short section of road shared with the Swaffham - Sandringham route. This also marks the point where gravel bike and mountain bike riders have the option of reversing the start of the Sandringham route back to Swaffham along broad sand, flint and grass tracks including an old Roman road alignment.
Devil take the hindmost
If you want to stick to the road, the route heads north to Narborough, passing the early Royal Flying Corps airstrip that preceded RAF Marham and paralleling the line of the Devil’s Dyke. This linear boundary earthwork is also known locally as the Bichamditch. Our route also passes just to the south of a small Iron Age hill fort overlooking the River Nar. You’ll cross the old railway line that’s now a nature reserve first, then sneak over the A47 before a final scenic scoot along the wooded borders of Narford Hall’s parkland before heading south west up a gradual rise and descent into Swaffham.
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