Last weekend I finally went on a cycle trip that I’d been planning before I even arrived in England. My travels have taken me to mountain tops, rushing down white water, and left me lost in thick wood, but I’d never yet ventured into the Earth. So I set my sight on Grime’s Graves, a neolithic flint mine in the midst of Thetford Forest.
(The route of the first day is in blue, while the second day is in red.)
I woke up early Saturday, packed my new waterproof panniers (taking advice from Mark after he hosted me while schlepping a backpack through Norfolk), and enjoyed an almost uninterrupted 30-mile ride from Cambridge to Bury St. Edmund. Suffolk supplied me with winding climbs to hills hemming in fields of cabbage and barley. Where the roads cut through woods I could smell honeysuckle and earth.
By the time I stopped pushing my steed through the miles I’d come to Newmarket, renowned for another sort of steed. I stopped at the practice course to watch jockeys speaking in many languages with many accents putting their horses through sprints up a long hill. While chawing on bread, watching from the fence, a man in a car started signaling to me. I had frightened a horse.
It was half past noon when I arrived in Bury St. Edmund to the sound of men hawking flowers, calling on endlessly “two for seven or three for a ten!” Unlike in Cambridge where the open air market is an everyday fixture, the market only comes twice a week in Bury, which may infuse the vendors and customers alike with more pep. The market has seen that vigorous trading for centuries, but in the past an undercurrent of violence always lurked. As I would learn in the Moyse’s Hall Museum just on the corner of the square, a thief could be arrested, tried, and violently punished by the mob in the space of a half hour.
In fact, the whole history of Bury St. Edmund is a bloody one. The town is named after Edmund the Martyr, the Anglo-Saxon king of a united East Anglia, who was shot full of arrows and decapitated after defying the demand of the invading Great Heathen Army that he renounce his Christian faith. A great abbey was established and supported with lucrative business of pilgrimage to Edmund’s burial site. The abbey was granted the right of civil rule over the town, and closely managed the merchants and craftsmen, controlling channels of trade and collecting tax in exchange for guild memberships and legal legitimacy. During economic depressions, the townsfolk began to resent this level of control, and destroyed substantial parts of the abbey during riots and revolts. The head of an abbot even ended up on a pike in the market square.
Today the ruined abbey is the town’s central park. People picnic or play tennis on courts surrounded with ruins. Children play soccer using stone columns for goalposts. Two grand churches still stand in the space, one of which was offering a free organ recital, a nice break from morbid tales of mantraps and books bound with the tanned skin of murderers.
The relaxation of the recital was especially welcome since I would soon be cycling to the village of Mildenhall, which would put me on a minor highway where I would be jockeying with cars for the lane. Fortunately the stressful moments were few and brief, and at my destination my host, John, was preparing dinner for us. We shared soup, salad, and pasta with a side of sourdough that I had baked the day before, and followed it up with apple tart and ice cream. We had a good time talking about communities and the different feel of villages and towns in the US and England. John has traveled a lot throughout Europe, and it was a treat to hear about a little Italian village of 40 permanent residents whose population triples or more on holidays when all the family members who have moved away return to catch up. He also told me of a Slovenian man who drove all over town after midnight to find John when he was lost. Other than talking about Warm Showers, we shared other online communities with each other like Postcrossing and Post Secret, brought on by my description of how letter writing is such a unique mode of communication for me. In the morning we parted ways, bound for destinations in opposite directions, though both traveling by cycle.
For my part, I was delving back into history once more, headed for the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village of Stow. Excavations have turned up artifacts from many eras of civilization, and the museum’s maps showed how tribes disconnected by centuries chose the same settlements, which in turn expanded into many of the modern villages and towns once the cycles of invasion and abandon were overtaken by advancing technology. The caretakers of the site do their best to replicate the village as it was, but there are obstacles like ancient crops giving way to modern varieties. In fact, at first archaeologists were not even sure how the buildings were structured, having only found holes in pits which were evidently used to support posts. At first researchers hypothesized that the buildings were basically roofs pitched over the pits, but as the pits filled in under visitors’ feet it became clear that there must have been floorboards over the pits.
Pigs grunting, a rooster crowing, and the occasional bug buzzing (each house contained nets of cobweb studded with insects), I wandered from house to house smelling the ashes of extinguished hearths and bundles of herbs hanging on the walls. In the workshop, a man dressed in dyed linens was showing a few children how to stitch a leather cap.
Back on the road, I was traveling further back in time. From the Anglo-Saxon age I was making my way towards the neolithic era, excited to climb into Grime’s Graves. But I got side-tracked. Without a map, I wasn’t feeling confident about being on the right heading, but I saw a small clearing in the forest with a signpost for a mountain bike trail. I had been planning a ride through the forest, and knew about these trails. Not only would they take me to a familiar spot on my mental map and would be a fun break from road riding, even if I wasn’t riding quite the right bike.
Dodging roots, rocks, and stumps wasn’t too hard while hopping from bump to bump, but soon I came to a sign warning me not to be a twit in the pit. A steep grade studded with fist-sized stones and bigger dared me. So despite the sign’s warning to only attempt the pit if I had the right bike, I rolled into it. And then I came around and did it again. My bike ran the trails as if it were stumbling. During a section called “The Beast” (I realize that video is very shaky, but it best conveys the experience of riding that trail, except for the fact that I was on a hybrid bike with two loaded panniers). I nearly crashed once or twice, and I stalled on one climb when my tires lost traction. Fortunately I wasn’t in anyone’s way, and so all the hazards were simply fun.
Once I made it to the trail head, I left the forest to make the curve through Brandon to Grime’s Graves. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxons, who named it Grim Graben, which translates as Grim’s quarries (Grim, or hooded one, was an epithet for the god Woden), though they did not have much interest in mining flint themselves. But for the neolithic people who inhabited the area it was an enormous, coordinated undertaking. They dug out the earth with shovels and picks made from the shoulders and antlers of red deer. The lowered ladders into the pits made from oak trees with notches cut into the trunk and constructed platforms to help load the excavated chalk and flint out of the mines. Each shaft went through three layers of flint before radiating out into galleries following the veins. The galleries connected the pits into an underground network, though they were so narrow that even I would’ve had difficulty wriggling through, let alone while wielding a pick.
Above ground the pits reveal themselves as craters, where the backfilling with excavated chalk has left them slightly sunken. These days the grounds are mostly grazing land for sheep and goats, but a priory in the 13th century also took advantage of the loose soil to establish a rabbit warren. Once again I spooked an animal by accidentally sneaking up to a pit where several sheep were sleeping.
Mysteries remain about the area. One of the pits was found to house chalk figurines and an altar with a cache of discarded antler picks. The authenticity of the find remains controversial, and contamination of the figurines has made carbon dating impossible. They’ve also found evidence of fires burned in the mines, but (for reasons that weren’t made clear) it’s understood that it wasn’t for heat or light, but more likely ritual use. With lamps casting a glow in the stone galleries, vegetation starting to invade the upper strata of the quarry, and the damp, cool rocks all around, the underground did feel enchanted.