"What happened here?" asked my husband as soon as he got out of the car and had a look around. "Looks like Swiss Cheese!"
And right he was, the pockmarked landscape at Grime's Graves really resembles an Emmental cheese with all those holes in the ground abd exactly those holes were what we had come for - at least one of them. The shape of this strange landscape is nothing that has grown naturally and all those holes and hills are man made - about 5000 years ago, the oldest ones probably about 3000 BC.
Back in Anglo-Saxon times they must have thought that they were looking at ancient burial mounts and so they named the place after the pagan god of the underworld "Grim" (also known as Woden), which brought the site the nickname "Devil's holes". It took until the late 19th century that one of these holes was excavated and people realised what they really were: flint mines that date back to the Neolithic Age.
Once my husband found out that I had made him to drive 1 hour just to take a walk in scenery that resembles the moon (just in green, very green!) and to see an old mineshaft, he wasn't very amused. "You've just got to be kidding!" was his remark and he looked as if he'd loved to send me straight to the aforementioned pagan god. He should have known better...
Nevertheless, we walked up to the small visitor centre and found out that there was no admission fee to the grounds but that the entrance to the mineshaft would cost £7.50 for a family ticket. Not too bad for an English Heritage site, if you are a member you can enter free. We had our two little daughters, aged 5 and 7, with us and if you are traveling with small children please bear in mind that the entrance to the shaft for children under 5 is not permitted.
Next to the small reception/shop is a museum room with some displays of findings from the area. You can see what the flint was used for; there are some examples of clothing and items of daily use as they would have looked like during Neolithic times and some information on how the flint was excavated. All in all this is a very small exhibition and it won't take more than a few minutes to see everything. The actual mine, the only one of the more than 300 that has been fully excavated and restored, is located just a few metres behind the visitor centre. It is the only Neolithic flint mine that is open to visitors in Britain. "If you want to take a walk please stay on the paths as there are snakes around" warned the young lady who is in charge of the visitor centre. Not too keen on a live encounter with a snake we happily obeyed and walked on the paths that surround and connect the "holes" instead of climbing right through them. Most of them are very overgrown with shrubs, small trees and bushes in their lowest, middle, point and some of the shrubs have thorns, so even without the warning we probably wouldn't have been tempted to explore them too closely.
Travelling with kids is not always easy and if they don't like where you take them they can give you a very hard time. Now Grime's Graves is not exactly Disneyland and by the time we'd reached the shaft I started to wonder whether it really had been a good idea to come here, as both our girls made long faces. I didn't need to worry as the mine sold itself to them.
As soon as we entered the small hut that has been built on top of the entrance their faces lit up - they'd spotted the big box with bright yellow hard hats in the corner and the long ladder leading downwards. The very friendly and chatty young man in charge confirmed that they were not only allowed to wear a helmet, but that they would have to and that they also would need to climb down the ladder to reach the mine. Their faces lit up and, after a quick glance downwards, my youngest commented "Wow! What a big hole!"
They only let a certain amount of people down into the mine at one time and so we had to wait a bit. To shorten the waiting time the young man told us how the flint was mined and how those holes have been created and this is exactly what makes this place so fascinating. Each and every of those many hundred mines has been dug by using such primitive tools like red-deer antlers and bone. Now imagine the sheer size of those mines: the shaft leads 9 metre (30 ft) deep into the ground, there is one large chamber and from this lead several galleries even deeper into the earth. Once a dig was exhausted or it got too complicated to get the flint out the holes were filled up again when the next mine was opened. This explains the strange landscape. By the time the young man had finished his story and other visitors had left we were able to ascend into the mine. Even my husband looked more than just a bit impressed by now.
To get down the ladder wasn't a big problem. 9 metres sounds a lot and it gets darker the further down you get, but even our girls managed without any trouble. We each had to go right before one of the children to be able to hold them in case they had slipped but thankfully this didn't happen. The main chamber of the mine was surprisingly high and standing up wasn't a problem. They've put lights down there, during the times the mines were in use the people had to rely on natural daylight from above and only had primitive oil lamps for use in the galleries. These galleries are very narrow and not very high at all and whilst the girls had a great time exploring them it wasn't quite that easy for us. They only lead a metre or so into the ground and are blocked by bars but you can easily see into the illuminated chambers behind. You don't need to be claustrophobic to break into cold sweat at the pure imagination how it must have been to lie in those tiny tunnels, digging even further into the ground, with the full knowledge that there are already 9 metres of ground above you and that the whole construction could cave in. As fascinating it was, I was glad to be above ground again. I'm not too keen on enclosed places, especially if they are under ground, and if I hadn't been that impressed by the achievement of those people from 5000 years ago, I'd never had considered climbing down that mineshaft.
Well, it was worth every minute and I can honestly say that these mines are one of the most amazing things I have ever seen !
As it was a lovely and sunny day we also took a walk around the site. It covers around 90 acres and is, even with its strange outlook, or maybe because of it, a great place for walking. The whole site wasn't very busy when we were there, apart from ours there were only 4 more cars in the car park, and we didn't meet anyone at all on our walk. There are many different plants and shrubs and it all is surrounded by Thetford forest, so plenty of scope for all those who like to walk a bit further distances than we can convince our daughters to do.
There are some picnic tables in front of the visitor centre but you'll have to bring your own food. They only sell ice-cream and chocolates, coffee and water and although we did enjoy the ice-cream it would be a bit meagre for a picnic. There are also no toilets for visitors on the site (they advice you to disappear behind a bush as we have found out when one of the kids needed one) and, apart from the visitor centre, Grime's Graves are not accessible for the less mobile.
The mines are easy to find if you have your own transport. They are located just of the A134, in between Thetford and Brandon, and are well signed out. If you don't have a car it gets a bit more difficult, as the next bus stop is about 2 miles away.