NB - this article was written in 2001 as part of the 22 villages project and as such may no longer be up to date. A paper by the authors was subsequently published in 2004 in the journal The Holocene. Please contact us (or the authors directly) for further information.
Between the large American air field at RAF Lakenheath and Brandon there is a surprising landscape for inland Britain: a system of sand dunes rising up around 6m above the surrounding area. These dunes are best developed at the Wangford Warren SSSI (TL 759841) and sand removed from this area by the wind is believed to have led to the overwhelming of Santon Downham in 1668 as reported by Thomas Wright Esq to the Royal Society. Prior to forestation in the mid-19th century the sand of the area was much more mobile than today and images of the landscape were captured vividly by several author:
John Evelyn, the noted diarist, wrote in 1677 of "….The Travelling Sands, about ten miles wide of Euston, that have so damaged the country, rolling from place to place, and like the sands in the deserts of Libya, quite overwhelmed some gentleman's whole estates….."
William Gilpin in 1769 was surprised to find "….such a piece of absolute desert almost in the heart of England" and that "Nothing was to be seen on either side but sand and scattered gravel without the least vegetation; a mere African desert."
Charles Kidman in 1735 wrote of "the horrible Brandon sands"
As late as 1829 David Davy described the Brandon area of being "….as barren a waste as ever I saw; the soil appears to produce nothing but rabbits and flints for a considerable distance……"
The connection between the dunes at Wangford and the sand flood in Santon Downham in 1668 has yet to be established, as has the cause of the event itself. A team consisting of Dr.Steve Godby from Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge and Dr. Mark Bateman of the University of Sheffield are conducting research into the event and its significance. Before adding to the sandstorm story, we need the answer to two questions; where did the sand come from in the first place and why was it on the move?
The sandy soils of Breckland are derived from a deposit known as cover sand. Cover sands are wind-blown deposits that blanket the landscape and are the result of the cold, dry and windy conditions experienced during periglacial conditions. The UK has four known cover sand regions, deposited towards the end of the last glacial episode of 'Ice Age' that is known as the Devonian. Sand was potentially supplied for the Breckland area by melts water from the Devonian ice sheet, the exposed bed of the North Sea and the weathering of till or boulder clay from the ice sheet. The cold and windy conditions found in this type of environment, combined with a lack of vegetation, are ideal for the movement sand by the wind. The Breckland cover sand has been dated, from the sand sample collected at Grimes Graves using a technique known as Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) by Dr. Mark Bateman, to 14,000years B.P.( Before Present). This means that the sand was indeed deposited during periglacial conditions towards the end of the Devonian. The implications for the dunes at Wangford are that they could be of a similar age and not connected with the 1668 sand flood. Speculation as to why the sand flood took place in the first place has tended to centre on the roll of the rabbits, mainly based on the information provided by Thomas Wright in his letter to the Royal Society in which he identified Lakenheath Warren as the source area for the sand.
The impact that rabbits through removing vegetation cover and their burrowing may lead to bare ground which the wind can then exploit, yet initial research has suggested that the impact had by rabbits, even in large numbers, may not have been enough to cause such large scale sand migration. Rabbit activities in combination with sheep grazing have much more potential for the removal of vegetation on a large scale and sheep were kept on the warrens at the time of the sand flood. Another factor that may be of great importance is climate. If the vegetation in the area were sparse due to climatic influences such as cold and dry conditions then the wind would be more effective as an erosional agent. 1668 and the preceding years during which the sand flood event took place fall within a period known as the little Ice Age (1550-1850 A.D.), A time of climatic deterioration in Europe and beyond. A focus of the research in the role that climate may have played in the Santon Downham story.
To date our work has centred on establishing the history of the dunes at Wangford Warren. This has involved establishing the age of the dunes using a combination of the OSL technique and radiocarbon dating and has revealed that wind action has been important at the site since at least 6000 years ago and continued until recent years. Detailed examination of the dunes for activity during the sand flood period is now taking place., with early indications suggesting that they are contemporaneous with the event described by Thomas Wright Esq. Other dune sites located between Wangford /Lakenheath Warren and Santon Downham are also being explored and work is set to commence in and around the village itself in the near future. Some dune forms remain in and around Santon Downham (as described by Mr. and Mrs. Moran) and these will be sampled for OSL in order to establish their age. Historical sources are also being investigated in order to establish the land use patterns in the area, with particular regard to the rabbit warrens, during the period.