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DID YOU KNOW?

Norfolk has 659 medieval churches – the highest concentration in the world.

An Introduction to Norfolk’s Material Heritage

Find out more about Norfolk’s natural heritage here, including information about some of the processes still used by craftspeople today!

The hard rocks normally used for building or sculpture lie deep beneath the surface in Norfolk. Most of the county is covered by a thick layer of chalk which is too soft to work and contains lumps of very hard flint. Over the chalk are clay and gravels, deposited by ice sheets during the Ice Ages.

Only in the far west of the county is there any material hard enough to cut into blocks or carve. These stones (Carstone and Clunch) are not high quality and tended to be used only in the area close to where they are found.

An anonymous 12th century account of the soil and climate of Norfolk includes the saying ‘Satan on the road to Hell/ Ruined Norfolk as he fell’ – probably an allusion to the unpromising nature of the natural materials. But people in Norfolk were ingenious in putting the materials they had in abundance to use. In the medieval period they skilfully worked flint in many different ways to construct hundreds of churches which still dominate the landscape today. From the 17th century onwards, clay became just as important, as the Norfolk clays proved ideal for brick production. The combination of brick and flint is found in buildings all over Norfolk and gives the county’s towns and villages their distinctive look. In the medieval period people skilfully worked flint in many different ways to construct hundreds of churches.

These still dominate the landscape today and have inspired artists for centuries, like this work by Imogen Bardwell. Explore how other artists have been inspired by Norfolk’s churches and places at Heritage Explorer.

Later clay became just as important, as Norfolk clays proved ideal for brick production. The combination of brick and flint is found in buildings all over Norfolk and gives the towns and villages their characteristic appearance.

Carstone and Clunch
These are stones which are found in a band running north to south, west of Swaffham and East of Kings Lynn. Carstone is a sandstone with a deep, rich brown colour from the iron oxides it contains and Clunch is a hard chalk which is good for carving. They can both be seen in Hunstanton’s famous stripy cliffs with a dividing line of red chalk between them.

It became fashionable in the 18th Century for grand land owners to use local Carstone instead of bringing in stone from outside the county. It has been used here at Houghton – though only in the stables!

Chalk and Flint
The beaches of Cromer and Overstrand are good places to see these distinctive Norfolk materials. Children find chalk pebbles washed up by the sea and use them to draw and write on the concrete sea defences and wooden groynes. The weirdly shaped flint nodules with the dark shiny flint encased in a crust of chalk white look like sculptures and their shapes inspired the great British sculptor Henry Moore.

Flint working
People in prehistoric Norfolk used flints for tools and weapons and the Neolithic mines at Grimes Graves produced the finest quality black flint.

After the Romans brought the technique of using mortar to join together building materials, flint began to be used in buildings and became the most important building stone in Norfolk.

Flint nodules range from cricket ball size to a meter across and can be split into even shapes. The Cathedral and Castle in Norwich, Castle Rising and Castle Acre were all constructed using flint and only “faced” with imported stone. Hundreds of churches and rich houses are built almost entirely of flint and display some beautiful effects. On the Bridewell in Norwich, flint nodules were “knapped” into cubes to form a perfect black wall of flint.

Many churches have wonderful “flushwork” where dark flint is set into lighter stone in complex patterns. Norfolk craftspeople are still using these ancient techniques today, find out more at flintknapping.co.uk. In other places, especially on the coast, houses are built using the unworked flint pebbles, rounded by the sea.

Clay

Five thousand years ago in the Breckland area of Norfolk, pottery artists embellished their work with impressions made with finger nails, small bones and pieces of wood.

In the 13th century clay in the form of bricks started to become an important building material. At first it was used in undercrofts (the great arched cellars found under many medieval houses in Norwich) but by the 16th century the grandest houses, such as Oxborough, were built of brick. Oxborough Church also has some of the first Renaissance sculpture in England, made in terracotta using local clay.