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Flint – the building block of Norfolk

Flint is an inescapable  and indelible part of Norfolk’s history and landscape. Look anywhere and you’ll see flint built churches.

Fisherman's cottage in Blakeney, Norfolk

Found naturally in chalk, with layers in various shapes and sizes, flint is almost pure silica, but any impurities give different colours: brown field flints eroded from the chalk around Fakenham; black flint around Thetford and Swaffham; chalk-covered grey flints north of North Walsham; light grey around Holt; rounded beach flints near Wells-next-the-Sea, Sheringham and Cromer.

Flint is a very hard black mineral similar in composition to glass, which when worked correctly, is capable of a very sharp cutting edge.

Happisburgh Flint handaxe front

Happisburgh flint hand axe.

Norfolk has become famous for its evidence of early human occupation. Among the finds have been a selection of black flint tools left behind 60,000 years ago near Lynford, in the Brecks, where flint tools were found with mammoth bones. Likewise, a 500,000-year-old flint axe was found at Happisburgh on Norfolk’s Deep History Coast.

4,500 years ago Neolithic people were mining flint from the chalk 57 feet below ground at Grime’s Graves near Thetford, where there are more than 400 digs – this is one of Europe’s earliest industrial centres and a unique source of hard black flint.

Grimes Graves aerial Mike Page Brecks

Aerial view of  Grime’s Graves in the Brecks, showing the pock marks created by mining for flint.

Grime’s Graves is a misnomer. There are no burials to be found here. The word graves actually means pits or mines.

It makes for a pocked landscape redolent of 20th century wars, for which flint helped lay the groundwork.

Named after the Devil’s holes of the pagan god Grim, the miners used the flint to expertly fashion all kinds of blades, from scrapers and knives to axes and spearheads, and later, flintlocks for firearms – they were mass-produced  here in the Brecks for the Napoleonic wars.

Without good available building stone and before brick-making was widespread in the later Middle Ages, flint, either knapped or unknapped (the word knap comes from the Dutch/German word krappen, to crack), was used since antiquity as a material for building stone walls, using lime mortar, and often combined with other available stone or brick rubble.

Breydon Water, Burgh Castle, Gt Yarmouth

Burgh Castle Roman fort is made of flint and brick.

Norwich’s Guildhall has some of the best medieval flintwork in existence, but there are good examples of its use across the county, including the Roman Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth, Norwich city walls including the Cathedral and the cobbled Elm Hill, Castle Acre Priory and the ruins of Thetford Priory.

Puzzling giant flint formations known as paramoudras (pot stones) can be found on low tide beaches at Beeston Bump and West Runton, and sometimes exposed in the chalk cliff.