Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Grimes Graves

Few places in Norfolk have more mystery attached to them than Grimes Graves.
Its name, for a start -.'Grim's Diggings', in which Grim is one of the titles of the old English god Woden (Odin), meaning 'masked', 'atrocious' or 'cruel'. .
Dirt is grime and dirt is grim, and so are graves; one walks away from them wiping one's hands. The name comes down to us from the Dark Ages, as though the place were best avoided.
The site is a lonely cluster of pits and mounds on open heathland surrounded by forestry plantations. In some ways the place itself is an anti-climax for visitors. How could it ever live up to its name? An English Heritage visitor centre squats in the middle of the site, housing introductory displays and a range of gift items, such as wines, jams and wooden swords. One is obliged to wear protective clothing before descending the ladder into the only open mineshaft. Once below, some 30 feet from the surface, with eyes adjusting to the dim light, one finds a series of low, lit tunnels and chambers radiating outwards into the surrounding chalk bedrock, from which slabs of flint were extracted by late Neolithic and early Bronze Age miners. The entrances are blocked with iron grilles and the chalk is grouted with white concrete - a far cry from the days of my childhood when I could scramble down the tunnels, and emerge covered in whiteness, my hands scratched by flints. 
Grimes Graves gallery © Tim Holt-Wilson 2012

I first met Grimes Graves through the historical dioramas at Norwich Castle Museum. They uniquely opened my eyes to Norfolk's history. The most compelling and disturbing model was that of a semi-naked man with an antler pick in hand, twisted awkwardly and bleeding, hacking out flints in a flickering darkness. I found his vulnerability frightening. I could turn with relief to the next diorama of the series, a sunlit Breckland scene during the Bronze Age. These displays have been 'retired' in recent years, but their impact remains. It is rivalled by that of the dark reconstructions of the site by Alan Sorrell, commissioned by the Ministry of Works in the 1960s, with their grainy atmosphere of prehistoric despair. 
Grimes Graves landscape © Tim Holt-Wilson 2012
Last Saturday, I joined the Hertfordshire Geological Society at Grimes Graves for their Breckland field trip. I was asked to say a few words about the site, so I spoke to them of trading networks and flint, heathland and vegetation patterns. But while members descended into the pit, I explored the pockmarked landscape above. The turf is soft and enchanting, like downland, and is cropped by primitive-looking sheep. Some 400 craters are scattered across the site, each one pays homage to Man's ancient and powerful ally, flint, and beneath each is an unexplored deposit of chalk rubble and prehistoric debris with a story to tell. I suspect it was from a place such as this that the maggots hatched from the Earth to become the race of dwarves, 'who acquired human understanding and the shape of men' ('Gylfaginning', XIV).
However, a horse's skull is my strongest association at Grimes Graves - the skull of a mare of Bronze Age date. It was recovered during the British Museum excavations in the 1970s, and represents the earliest known domesticated horse in Britain. She was evidently old at the time of her death, for her teeth were worn. Exotic and valuable, she was evidently worth caring for into old age. I think of her as the ancestress of all native horses in Britain. She appears in my imagination covered in chalk. 

Sunday, 8 July 2012


Rushall, Norfolk - 7th July 2012

A warm wind from the south-east, with disturbed cloud shifting through a blue sky - change is in the air in this part of England, while other parts (Devon, Dorset, Somerset) experience torrential rainfall. Fields of corn and sugar beet are basking in shifting sunlight.

Rushall landscape 1 © Tim Holt-Wilson 2012

I am walking along a footpath southwards towards Dodd's Wood. The path follows a strip of grassy land, a set-aside or conservation margin, between a wheat field and a hedge. In contrast to the block of uniformly coloured wheat to my right, the field margin and the hedge are alive with a variety of insect and plant life.
  • A dusky brown butterfly with slow erratic flight, grey margins to its wings;
  • A copper-coloured butterfly, wings ajar as it rests on a leaf;
  • A fleshy looking water plant with spear-shaped leaves in the ditch;
  • Flowering grasses;
  • Pale pink, sweetly-scented dog roses like stars in the hedge;
  • A large puff-ball seed head like a dandelion clock but much larger and bolder; has green flower buds...
I search for names to make sense of what I am seeing in the landscape. Sometimes the particulars are there, and sometimes they are not: .
  • A big humming insect > a bumblebee > White-tailed Bumblebee Bombus lucorum.
  • A wood > a square of deciduous trees > perhaps a plantation 200 years old.
  • A field of corn > wheat > I don't know the name of the seed variety (how can I find out)?

A Small Skipper butterfly Thymelicus sylvestris
The dramatic leaves of Water Plantain Alisma plantago-aquatica
The sheer diversity of the life along the hedgerow and ditch contrasts absolutely with the lack of diversity in the wheat field. A regiment of stalks rise regular and stiff from the bare brown soil. A small moth flies up from my feet and lands in the wheat. Frankly, I am a little afraid for its safety, as if the wheat were laced with pesticide - which it probably is. From a biodiversity point of view, if we could see the field as a painting then the frame would be the most valuable part of the tableau. 
I pause on the threshold of the wood, my eyes adjusting to the dim, green light and my skin to the change of temperature. Tree trunks rise up, giving contrasting vistas into deeper places beyond the path. Pale brown, voracious sparks of life - mosquitoes - begin drifting round me. I follow the footpath across ground carpeted by Dog's Mercury and Enchanter's Nightshade, flanked by traces of a ditch brimming with leaf mould. Through the trees, I see that many branches have been gathered into a conical shelter round the base of an ash tree, as if adventurous boys - or Mesolithic man - had recently passed through. It is more likely to be a rough shelter for feeding pheasants in winter.
In contrast to the wheat field, the hedgerow, ditch and the wood are places of richness - visual, cultural and biological. They have developed in a time-depth dimension, as years and centuries have passed by with ecological continuity. There are occasional punctuation marks in their development - cutting, ditching, coppicing - but nothing compared to what happens to the wheat field, reset to ground-zero each year by the farmer. 
Of course, all this land was once forested, perhaps a thousand years ago, and the fields were won from the forest by hard labour of humans, horses and oxen. The diversity of life in the field margins, hedgerows and ditches has developed since then. I am thankful for the Environmental Stewardship scheme which allows it to continue flourishing in the face of industrial agriculture. If the wheat field is 'modern', perhaps the conservation margin is 'postmodern'? (answers below, please).
Meanwhile, I am reminded of a quote by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss:
...civilization is no longer a fragile flower, to be carefully preserved and reared with great difficulty here and there in sheltered corners of a territory rich in natural resources... All that is over: humanity has taken to monoculture, once and for all, and is preparing to produce civilization in bulk, as if it were sugar-beet.
                                                                   - 'Tristes Tropiques'; transl John Russell; 1955.
Rushall landscape 2 © Tim Holt-Wilson 2012