Valuing Chalk landscape and geodiversity in the East of England


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Economic and cultural life of the Chalk

The Chalk has played a vital role in human life in the East of England from earliest times. Its flints were tools of preference for over 99% of human history. Today the Chalk is the region’s major source of drinking water; it is also a historic source of lime and building stone, which has left quarries, pits and tunnels. The chalk landscape was favoured for early human settlement, which has left a legacy of field monuments such as burial mounds, banked enclosures and linear earthworks. Chalky soils are a major resource for the region's agriculture.

The Chalk features in the cultural life of the East of England through art, folklore and museum collections, and its landscape is a wonderful resource for recreational enjoyment and inspiration


Select an area of interest below

Water supply
Products from the Chalk
Settlement and farming
Prehistoric flint tools
Cultural features

Wouldham chalk cliffs at Chafford Gorges Country Park. Photo © Gerald Lucy Chalk cliffs at Chafford Gorges Country Park, near Grays, Essex, are the remains of a massive quarry which excavated chalk for cement making.
Water Supply
The Chalk is the region's most important aquifer. Rainwater percolates down to the water table through fissures and joints in the rock, and becomes stored there. Water is taken from this saturated zone through boreholes (for public consumption), and where it flows out of the aquifer it is abstracted from springs and rivers (mostly for agriculture). Water from the Chalk is hard (rich in lime), and readily furs up kettles and other domestic appliances.
Over-abstraction of water from the Chalk aquifer and from rivers has been a problem in some areas, leading to drying up of wells, springs, rivers and streams, with consequent impacts on wildlife and water supply. Pollution by nitrates is another problem for the region's water supply, and contamination by chemicals such as organic chlorinated solvents may locally be an issue.
A kettle furred with lime. Photo © Geo-East   Fowlmere pumping station. Photo © Geo-East    
Water supplied from the Chalk contains dissolved calcium carbonate, which readily comes out of solution when heated. The element of this kettle has become furred with deposited lime.   The pumping station at Fowlmere, Cambs, extracts water from the Middle Chalk. The Cambridge Water Company monitors impact of extraction on spring flow and surface water levels at nearby Fowlmere Watercress Beds SSSI.    
For more information about chalk and the water supply see the Resources page.
Products from the Chalk
Varied products from the Chalk have made a big contribution to the economy of the East of England over the centuries
  • Portland cement: chalk is mixed with clay, then ground up and made into a slurry which is then calcined in kilns to produce cement. Big cement works in the region, now closed, include Barrington and Sundon.
  • Building lime: chalk is roasted in closed kilns to produce quicklime, which is then mixed with water to produce slaked lime for making mortar. For many centuries this was the only way of cementing brick and stone.
  • Building stone: the harder horizons in the Chalk, for example the Melbourn Rock, have often been used as a source of building stone, known locally as clunch. The Totternhoe Stone was widely used in Mediaeval times for building churches and abbeys.
  • Agricultural lime: in the 18th century it was discovered that sandy fields could be improved for agriculture with a dressing of ground chalk. Old marl pits are a common feature of fields where chalk is found close to the surface beneath sandy superficial deposits.
  • Flint for building: the Upper Chalk is rich in flints, which have been a useful building resource in a region where little suitable freestone is available. Flint on its own can be used to build round towers, an East Anglian speciality. It can be knapped and used to build decorative panels of flushwork.
  • Gunflints: the spark-producing properties of struck flint were put to use in flintlock guns from the mid 17th century onwards. The area round Brandon, Suffolk, was the centre of an important flint mining industry, and did a busy trade during the Napoleonic wars.
  • Whiting: chalk can be ground and refined to produce pure whiting powder, used for food products, paper coatings, industrial fillers and toothpaste. It is extracted for this purpose from the Middle Chalk at Steeple Morden, Cambs.
Economic changes mean that little chalk is extracted in the region today, but the industry has left an important legacy of disused pits and quarries which are valuable for wildlife as well as useful access points for geological study. Flint is still traded for building and facing walls.
Sundon quarry 1965. Photo © Sydney A Leleux   A clunch wall at Barton Mills. Photo © Geo-East   A round tower at Wortham church. Photo © Geo-East
Sundon quarry, Beds, 1965. Once a big quarry and limeworks complex with its own railway system, it is now designated a chalk grassland SSSI.   Chalk clunch, probably from the hard Melbourn Rock horizon, used in a wall at Barton Mills, Suffolk.   Flint cobbles from local fields have been used to build the round tower of St Mary's Church, Wortham, Suffolk. This is the largest example in England.
Horringer Court Chalk Mines. Photo © Geo-East   Lime extraction at Great Wilbraham chalk pit. Photo © Geo-East   The Lime Burners pub sign. Photo © Geo-East
A chalk extraction tunnel at Horringer Court Chalk Mines, Suffolk. The site is an important bat roosting site, and has been designated as a SSSI.   Extraction of chalk for agricultural lime at Great Wilbraham, Cambs. The chalk is being broken up by disc harrows.   Lime burners at work. A historic pub sign at the 'Lime Burners', Offton, Suffolk.
Chalk slurry tank at Mason’s cement works. Photo © Dylan Moore   A packet of Blanchard’s Whiting. Photo © Geo-East   A flint-lock mechanism. Photo © Geo-East
A chalk slurry tank at Mason's cement works, Great Blakenham, Suffolk (closed 1999). The slurry is a mixture of chalk and clay ready for calcining.   Whiting, an early 20th century chalk product for cleaning silverware, manufactured by Blanchard, Martin & Simmonds, London.   A Brandon black flint used in an 18th century flintlock pistol.
For more information about chalk and the water supply see the Resources page.
Settlement and farming on the Chalk
The Chalk landscape of the East of England has been discontinuously inhabited by humans for over 500,000 years, but human life has only made a major impact on it over the last 6,000 years, with the arrival of permanent settlement and farming. The availability of water on the dry chalklands was a key factor, so farms clustered near rivers, springs and wells. Woodland began to be cleared from the Neolithic period onwards, and open downland began to form where grazing pressure prevented tree regeneration. Early Bronze Age settlement has left a legacy of round burial mounds along the Chalk escarpment, notably at Therfield Heath, Herts. The Icknield Way became an important route of communication along the escarpment, linking East Anglia with the chalklands of Wessex, and defensive enclosures were built in the later Bronze Age and Iron Age to control trade along this corridor, as at Sharpenhoe and Wandlebury.
Round barrows at Therfield Heath. Photo © Geo-East Early Bronze Age round barrows on the Chalk escarpment at Therfield Heath, Herts, about 4800 years old.
During the Roman period, major villa settlements grew up to exploit the natural wealth of the 'chalk belt'
at places such as Gayton Thorpe, Norfolk, and Gadebridge, Herts, and towns grew up at Verulamium
(St Albans) and Duroliponte (Cambridge). In early Saxon times, a series of linear bank and ditch systems were built across the Icknield Way in many places; the most famous of these is the Devil's Dyke near Newmarket.

The roots of the settled Chalk landscape we know today lie in the mediaeval period, when the pattern of fields, woodlands, villages and farms developed. The chalklands were never heavily populated due to a shortage of water and wood, but a wool growing economy could develop, which continued into the later 19th century. Artificial fertilisers have now allowed arable cultivation for cereals and even sugar beet on thin chalky soils. Watercress was cultivated near springs in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Icknield Way near Chrishall Grange. Photo © Geo-East
The prehistoric Icknield Way follows the region's Chalk escarpment, seen here at Chrishall Grange, Cambs, heading westwards towards Royston.
Strip lynchets at Pegsdon. Photo © Geo-East   Sheep grazing at Chrishall Grange. Photo © Geo-East   Old watercress beds at Fowlmere. Photo © Geo-East
Mediaeval cultivation terraces, known as strip lynchets, can be seen on the slopes of Deacon Hill near Pegsdon, Beds.
  Sheep grazing at Chrishall Grange, Cambs. For many centuries sheep rearing was the most profitable way to farm the East Anglian chalklands.   Old watercress beds developed around springs at Fowlmere Fen, Cambs. The site was farmed from the 1890s to 1960s.
Chalk landscape at Sandon. Photo © Geo-East  
The dry East Anglian Chalk landscape near Sandon, Herts. Boreholes and piped water have now allowed settlement in these isolated upland locations.  
For more information about settlement and farming on the region's chalklands see the Resources page.
Prehistoric flint tools
Flint tools are among the earliest human signatures in the archaeological record. The abundance of fresh flint in the East of England made it a favoured place for our ancestors, and many highly important sites have been found in the region which demonstrate the different phases of prehistoric settlement from the Palaeolithic period onwards.
The earliest flint tools in north-west Europe have been found at Happisburgh in Norfolk, in the form of flake tools dating back about 780,000 years ago. The most prolific handaxe site in Britain is at Warren Hill, near Mildenhall, Suffolk, where early humans were able to obtain flint from a river valley where it cut through the Chalk escarpment about 500,000 years ago. Sites such as Caddington in Bedfordshire, have produced evidence of flint knapping floors dated about 425,000 years ago. Later Neanderthal human settlement is related to distinctive bout coupé handaxes and tools made using a 'Levallois' knapping technique, as found at Lynford in Norfolk.

The arrival of our own species is marked by a new range of finely-made tools, including long blades struck from prismatic cores, after 12,000 BP. Techniques became refined and miniaturised in the Mesolithic period, producing characteristic 'microlithic' tools, as found abundantly along the fenland margin of the Chalk outcrop in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Neanderthal handaxe from Lynford. Photo © Geo-East
A bout coupé handaxe from Lynford, Norfolk. Bones of a woolly mammoth showing cut marks were found at this site, which has been dated to a cold period about 60,000 years ago
In later Neolithic times the Brandon Flint Series of the Upper Chalk was exploited on an industrial scale at Grimes Graves flint mines, Norfolk. Over 430 shafts were dug, and flint tools made from Brandon flint were traded widely across England.
Flint knapping by John Lord. Photo © Geo-East   A mine gallery at Grimes Graves. Photo © Geo-East   A flint tool from Caddington. Photo © Geo-East
The handaxe was the most important tool for over 99% of human existence. This example has been made by the knapper John Lord.   Grimes Graves flint mines, near Weeting Norfolk. Dating from the late Neolithic period, these mines were excavated about 4,500 years ago to exploit a flint-rich horizon in the Upper Chalk.   A Palaeolithic flake tool found by Worthington G. Smith at Caddington brickpit, Beds. This site was preserved in a solution hollow in the Chalk bedrock.
For more information about the region's prehistoric flint industry see the Resources page.
Cultural features of the Chalk
The Chalk has featured in the cultural life of the East of England for many centuries through art and folklore.
  • Carvings: The artistic properties of chalk have been used for centuries for carvings, including architectural ornamentation; the Royston Cave, Herts, is a fascinating underground cell decorated with carved figures and graffiti
  • Turf-cut figures are an ancient form of landscape art, using the whiteness of exposed chalk in contrast with surrounding turf. Examples in the region include the Whipsnade Lion, Beds (cut in 1933), and a mediaeval figure of the giant Gogmagog recorded at Wandlebury, Cambs. The turf-cut labyrinth at Saffron Walden is the largest in Britain.
  • Chalk fossils have fascinated people for thousands of years. Sea-urchins such as Micraster and Conulus were known as 'Fairy Loaves' in Suffolk, and credited with magical powers to guarantee bread for the household. Bullet-shaped Belemnites were known as thunder-stones, and were thought to fall from the heavens during storms.
The region's museums feature fine collections of specimens from the Chalk. These collections are a valuable resource for education and enjoyment. They provide fascinating insights into marine life over 65 million years ago, and help tell the story of life in the Cretaceous 'greenhouse' world, which had temperatures, concentrations of carbon dioxide and sea-levels much higher than our own.

The Chalk landscape is a wonderful resource for recreation and inspiration, as well as providing communities with their geographical identity and a sense of place. From the open uplands of west Norfolk to the hills of south Bedfordshire, the Chalk provides much-needed breathing space in our increasingly crowded world.

Chalk fossils at Stockwood Discovery Centre. Photo © Geo-East
Chalk fossils are often beautiful and well-preserved. These specimens can be seen at Stockwood Discovery Centre, Luton.
Bronze Age burial at Dunstable Downs. Photo © Geo-East   Royston Cave chalk carving. Photo © James Robinson   Carved clunch at Barrington Church. Photo © Geo-East
An early Bronze Age burial of a woman and child at Dunstable Downs, Beds. They were surrounded with over 100 fossil sea-urchins from the Chalk.   Graffiti and a mediaeval image, thought to represent King David, carved onto the chalk walls of the Royston Cave, Herts.   Gothic window tracery carved from chalk clunch ('Burwell Rock') at All Saints Church, Barrington, Cambs. It is showing the effects of weathering by acidified rainwater.
The Saffron Walden Maze. Photo © Geo-East   Gogmagog excavated by TC Lethbridge. Photo © Cambridge Preservation Society   Warren Hill, Newmarket. Photo © TD Holt-Wilson
Saffron Walden maze, Essex, is a mediaeval turf-cut labyrinth in a cruciform Christian design. Originally cut into the chalk, its path has now been lined with bricks.   A hill-figure of the giant Gogmagog is said to have existed at Wandlebury, Cambs. in the 17th century. This figure was excavated in the 1950s.   Training gallops at Warren Hill, near Newmarket. The dry, springy chalk downland turf at Newmarket Heath has supported horse racing since the 17th century.
View from Warden Hill. Photo © Geo-East   Kite flying on Dunstable Downs. Photo © TD Holt-Wilson   Landscape art at Little Blakenham Woodland Garden. Photo © Caroline Markham
A view over the 'urban fringe' from Warden Hill, Beds. The chalk downland here provides the 'green lungs' for nearby suburbs of Luton.   Up-draughts of air along the Chalk escarpment at Dunstable Downs make it a popular place for gliding and kite-flying.   A landscape gardening feature at Little Blakenham Woodland Garden, Suffolk. It spirals down through Crag sand to reveal the underlying chalk bedrock.
For more information about the role of the Chalk in the region's cultural life see the Resources page.
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