Autumn in Breckland

In July 1866 the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society also visited Grimes Graves, near Thetford.

‘About sixty of the members and friends met at Brandon Station, where arrangements had been made for conveyances. The weather was unsettled and on arriving at Grimes Graves the company were detained on account of the heavy showers of rain and hail which fell; but as soon as the weather had a little cleared, Mr. Manning read a paper on Grimes Graves, in which he showed that this irregularly shaped cluster of holes were ancient British dwellings, forming the remains of an ancient town’.

It was only in 1870, when one of the pits was excavated, that Grimes Graves was revealed to be a Neolithic flint mine, one of only a handful of such sites in the UK, and now the only one open to the public.

Last week we took our second year undergraduate students there on a field trip to Breckland on a beautiful autumn day – certainly in better weather than the Norwich and Norfolk Archaeological Society in 1866! When we arrived the sun was just burning the mist off the strange landscape of pits and hollows that show the location of the mine shafts, which made for an atmospheric start to our day.

One of the mine shafts is open, and after donning hard hats and descending a steep ladder, the students were able to see the tiny tunnels full of rubble, all dug out by hand during the Neolithic using picks made from antlers.

Our next stop was Thetford Priory, a Cluniac house founded in 1107, and one of several religious houses in Thetford during the medieval period. It was dissolved in 1540, despite efforts by the Howard family to transform it into a college, and therefore save the family tombs in the church. The Howard family tombs were eventually moved to the parish church at Framlingham in Suffolk, which we visited with students last summer.

Finally, we clambered up the huge 25 metre high motte at Thetford Castle to take in the views of the surrounding Breckland landscape. The Norman castle was inserted into the ramparts of an Iron Age fort overlooking the river Thet. The huge earthworks of the ramparts and the motte are very impressive, and very steep on the way down!

Thetford has a long and interesting history, and there are a number of trails around the town exploring different aspects of its heritage on the Exploring Thetford website. We can heartily recommend chips from the chip shop opposite the Kings House if you should visit…

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Author: UEA Landscape History

Landscape historians based in the School of History at the University of East Anglia.

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