Saturday, 3 June 2017

A Norfolk Underworld

Sunday, 18 August 2013

It is with no small amount of shame that I realise how long it's been since I last posted here on this glorious site. For that I must apologise.
So, I have to happily tell you that much has happened in the intervening time including many more places that have been explored - the real-life ghosts of a yesteryear era re-discovered and documented.
This first of my new set of postings sees a further journey into the underground world of Norwich, the fine city in which I live. One of my earlier postings related a visit to a chalk mine that was used as a World War II air raid shelter. I knew that there were more of these chalks mines in and around Norwich and so I set about locating as many as I could, with a view to exploring their darkened tunnels.
This mine is located on the South side of the city, close to a residential area, but well hidden within a beautiful woodland area. It took me several visits to locate the mine's entrance, and when I finally discovered the access I craved, I wasted no time in preparing this explore of a part of Norwich's lost and largely forgotten past. I prepared carefully for this journey into the underworld - safety is paramount and an explore of this nature cannot be undertaken lightly. Powerful torches, walkie-talkies, guide lines and safety clothing were purchased and prepped. Those that needed to know where I was going were informed and a willing and enthusiastic companion was found as it would have been completely foolish to do this alone.
And so the day came that my friend and I had spent good time preparing for. Our cameras were primed and we set off into the darkness and the unknown.
The chalk mines of Norwich have been disused since the end of World War II, but for some of them, their histories go right back to the twelfth century. Records indicate that this particular mine was the very last to be discontinued. Norwich was mined for chalk and flints from the Middle Ages until the beginning of World War 2. The chalk taken from these mines was used for liming in agriculture and in building mortar - a couple of lime kilns still exist close to mine locations (there'll be a posting about one of them in the near future). The flints found in the mines were used to build the city walls and some of Norwich's finest buildings, of which the Guildhall is a truly excellent example. The chalk was initially excavated from an open pit, but then tunnels were started from the side of the resulting pit that followed the richest seams of flints. The oldest mines were dug closest to the centre of Norwich, and as the city grew, the mines were dug further out. Sadly, there are no proper detailed maps of all the various mines within the city boundary beause many them were in private ownership and largely dug between the 12th and 18th century when record keeping wasn't deemed necessary or important. However, Norwich City Council documented locations where collapses occurred which were thought to be due to mine workings.
The entrance to our mine was hidden deep in undergrowth, and it looked to have been sealed using bolted metal plates, probably by the council. Our access was made through a small opening caused by person or persons unknown, trying to remove (with limited success it would seem) the metal plate - it was a tight squeeze through and I am not of a lender nature, if you get my meaning. Once through the tiny gap, we found ourselves in what, at first viewing, looked like an old corrugated Anderson shelter, but when we lit our torches, the sight beyond proved breath-taking.
The first 100 feet or so was quite low and we needed to stoop as we carefully made our through the darkness and over the uneven chalky terrain. All too soon, the roof of the entrance tunnel rose so that we were able to stand full height, with no fear of hitting our heads. We set up several very bright LED light pods to establish our "base camp". The weather outside the mione was damp and cold, despite a sunny sky, but in here, it was very warm. My companion began to draw out our progress thus far, his intention to create a kind of map of the mine, as best he could. We left coats and heavier non-essential stuff at the base-camp and headed off ino the over-whelming darkness ahead of us.
The chalk mine was a veritable maze of tunnels and we were pleased that we had thought to take a large ball of string with us so that we did not get lost. A number of tunnels were dead ends, some because of collapse, some that were not mined further. We found passageways that had steep inclines of several feet, and there were vertical shafts that, at the deepest, were of a roughly 10 metre drop. At the bottom of these drops were more tunnels that went back further, which of course we explored.
We found a wall, some 1/3 of a mile in, that had surveyers initials and dates going back to the 1920's - this made me feel like a true explorer.
We noticed painted blue arrows and circles with crosses in them - we soon worked out that these arrows indicated a route that led to the exit and the circled crosses denoted the tunnel ahead was a dead end.
The strata was fascinating as many of the tunnels were two-tone white and yellow. There were little dug out "shelves" in the walls where candles or gas lamps had been put. Here and there were old tools or buckets.
We made our way back to the base-camp and enjoyed a drink (water of course) before packing our trash and heading out.
My friend Chris and I returned to the mine a few times so that he was able to complete his mapping of the mine and he also created a short video, which I have added below.
The Harford Hills Chalk Mine was truly a journey through time and space. We walked corridors of chalk and flint that had been dug by the hands of a men long since gone, breathed in ancient air and witnessed subterranean scenes of a yesteryear world. What once was lost, we had now found.
I took a recent trip to the mine and found that it has now been tightly sealed. A good thing in some respects as vandals had found their way in, but sad that future generations may possibly not see evidence of their city's past.

No comments:

Post a Comment