Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Laurence Mitchell introduces us to the many ways in which flint has shaped the cultural landscape of East Anglia. The distinctive stone that glistens in fields and is ground by the tides on the region’s beaches is used in many of East Anglia’s fine churches. Flint inflects the region’s history.

article summary —

Some landscapes wear their hearts on their sleeves. Topography tells the entire story: hills and mountains, deep valleys, rocky outcrops — geomorphology writ large, geology in plain sight. Think of archetypal English landscapes captured in paintings, film and photography: the Lake District with its mountains, lakes and glacial valleys; the Peak District with its lightdark character of limestone and millstone grit; the West Country with its rolling hills, lush meadows and sandstone-red soil. But other landscapes are not quite so easy to read. To understand the low country of England’s easternmost region you need to dig down to what lies beneath.

In East Anglia, a thick band of chalk lies beneath the surface all the way from the Wash across Norfolk and Suffolk to the North Sea coast. Laid down in shallow warm seas between 135 and 70 million years ago during the Cretaceous period, the chalk is up to 450 metres thick and underlies the whole of Norfolk east of the escarpment that marks the boundary of the Fens. At Great Yarmouth on Norfolk’s east coast the top of the chalk is 150 metres below ground level and overlain with more recent deposits left by the ice that covered the land during the Pleistocene glacial period that lasted until around 400,000 years ago. In the west of the county, the chalk lies in plain sight much closer to the surface. Within the chalk are strata of flint nodules and it is this stone that characterises so much of East Anglia, especially the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.


Flint is a curiosity: a remarkably hard sedimentary rock that is born within another much softer one. Like chalk, it is produced from the residue of once living creatures — a metamorphosis from silicarich sludge to amorphous lumps of the hardest of rocks. Chalk’s formation from the accretion of calciumrich shells of sea creatures is easy enough to envisage. Flint, though, requires a little more imagination. Put in the simplest terms, it is generally believed that flint nodules are formed when the dissolved silica released from microscopic sponges occupy the void left by burrowing crustaceans. It is the shape of such burrows that give flint its curiously knobbly form.

Although originating as layered nodules in the chalk, much of the flint found in East Anglia is what may be termed Quaternary. That is, it is rock that over millennia has been shifted from its original setting by means of ice sheets, rivers and ocean currents. It is this flint that lies thickly scattered and plough-broken on Norfolk fields or piled up on Suffolk’s shingle beaches. It is the same flint that has long been gathered for building barns and cottage walls or used as hardcore for road making.

Along the East Anglian coastline much of this flint ends up on beaches or on spits: shape-shifting accumulations of pebbles that have been moved and deposited by the process of longshore drift — where inshore currents and wave patterns shape coastal topography. One of the most impressive of these spits, indeed at 16 km long the largest in England, is Orford Ness in Suffolk ( featured in issue 46 of hidden europe).

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 70.