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Grime's Graves

by Richard Crowhurst

Hidden away in the depths of Thetford Forest in Norfolk, just off the main A134 road between Kings Lynn and Thetford at Weeting, are a series of pits and depressions known as Grime's Graves. In total they cover an area of 90 acres. Despite their macabre name, these pits originated, not as graves, but as mine shafts where people dug for flint. The name came later, identifying the area as the resting place of the Devil and associating it with Grim, the ancient god of the underworld.

Grimes Graves Shaft

Back in the Neolithic Age, flint was a vital tool, highly prized for its ability to take a razor sharp edge and its durability. Concentrations of flint were a valuable natural resource and this area of flint in the middle of Norfolk was worked for nearly 1,000 years. During that time over 360 shafts were dug at depths up to 30 feet. From these pits tunnels ran out in different directions to form galleries where the best flints could be mined. The flint nodules lay in three bands in the softer chalk bedrock: the topstone, wallstone and floorstone. A similar geological arrangement of linear flint streams can be seen today in the chalk cliffs at Dunwich on the Suffolk coast.

Today the site retains its atmosphere. Climbing down the narrow steel ladder into one of the chambers, and then peering along the low tunnels, it is easy to imagine the sounds of working and chatter that would have filled the chambers. Walking across the pits your feet are never more than inches away from scraps of flint or worked stone. The ghosts of the past haunt the Breckland landscape that, apart from the planting of the forest, has changed little in millennia.

Each shaft and gallery was worked with tools of antler and bone until the supply of flint in a particular hole began to dry up, or the distance it needed to be dragged became too great. At this time the shaft would be closed and a new pit dug. The spoil from the excavations was put into a previously worked out hole, and over the centuries this in-fill material slumped down to give the area its current, distinctive, appearance. The pits would have been wide with natural daylight filtering down to the working floor. However, in the tunnels and galleries, illumination would have come from primitive oil lamps with floating wicks. As well as the deeper pits and galleries there is evidence of shallow, opencast workings. These were only one or two meters deep as people delved through the surface sand and mud to find the flints lying in the chalk layer below.

Once excavated, and hauled to the surface by ropes or carried up ladders, the flint would have been worked on site. So-called knapping floors have been unearthed indicating the extent of this enterprise. The flint nodules were carefully worked with hammerstones to form axes and knives. Relatively few of these artefacts have been uncovered in the local area indicating that much of the flint may have been transported elsewhere in the form of rough blanks. The fact that Grime's Graves lies close to the ancient trackways of the Peddars Way and the Icknield Way would have made transport of the flints straightforward. There is evidence that the miners may have conducted ceremonies at the end of their excavations and artefacts such as a crudely carved chalk woman and flint nodules inscribed with pictures have been found.

The first recorded excavation of the site occurred between 1868 and 1870, following similar excavations on the South Downs in Sussex. Despite the size of the site in Norfolk, most of the flint mining in ancient Britain occurred in the south. However the pits at Grime's Graves are the best preserved, and the only place it is possible to descend a ladder to see the ancient workings.

Other Attractions in the Area

Oxburgh Hall is a moated Tudor manor house about half an hour's drive away. A visit to Grime's Graves and Oxburgh can be combined for a day out from a base elsewhere in East Anglia. The house is owned by The National Trust. It features rooms charting the development of domestic decorative fashion from medieval times to Victorian neo-Gothic excess. There are attractive gardens, a woodland walk and the family chapel to explore. Full details and opening times for Oxburgh can be found at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk

More information:

Grime's Graves are managed by English Heritage. Details of opening times and facilities at Grime's Graves can be found at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk

Grime's Graves are little more than an hours drive from the major eastern cities of Cambridge, Norwich, Ipswich, and Bury St Edmunds. Public transport to the site is limited, but by car it is well signposted from major roads.

Where to Stay

The nearby towns of Swaffham (8 miles) and Thetford (4 miles) are home to a number of hotels and guesthouses. The local village of Brandon (3 miles) has a number of places to eat and stay and many of the buildings are constructed from the local Norfolk flint. For details of accommodation and places to eat visit http://www.visitnorfolk.co.uk/norfolk/. This website also provides details of other museums and attractions in the Norfolk area.

More information about flint knapping and Neolithic life can be found at the following sites:

BBC: Norfolk A-Z

Grimes Graves

Grimes Graves Panorama View

Ron Wilcox Online Texts: The Neolithic

For those who like browsing second-hand bookshops during their travels, the following volumes are usually fairly easy to find:

  • Green, Barbara, Grime's Graves", English Heritage, London, 1993.

  • Hawkes, Jacquetta, A guide to the Prehistoric and Roman Monuments in England & Wales, Chatto & Windus, London, 1973.

  • Fletcher, Richard, The East Anglians, Patrick Stephens, Cambridge, 1980.

Richard Crowhurst is a freelance writer and author based in Lincolshire, England. He writes on many subjects, including history and heritage topics. More details can be found on his websites, http://www.freelance-writer-and-author.co.uk and http://www.enagri.info.
Article © 2006 Richard Crowhurst
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org


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