Discover evidence for Brandon’s historic flint mines.
Zoom in to the Google Map to find the points of interest.
When struck, flint readily produces sparks. For over a century Brandon was the capital of the gunflint industry; it supplied the British Army at the Battle of Waterloo. Raw flint was extracted from mines in the Chalk bedrock at Lingheath and Brandon Park, where flint beds yielding high-quality nodules lie close to the surface.
The Lingheath flint pits, 1931. [Image © BGS GeoScenic P205615]
The Chalk strata in the Brandon area are about 90 million years old. Flint is a mineral formed within the chalk. It may form as nodules by partial replacement of the chalk by silica, e.g. filling the shapes of fossil worm burrows; it may also form as sheets, e.g. filling joints and bedding planes between rock layers.
Part of the sequence of chalk and flint beds in the Brandon area. The miners gave familiar names to each horizon. [Image: ‘On the Manufacture of Gunflints’ by SBJ Skertchly, 1879]
Fresh flint is black in colour, with a white, chalky skin or cortex. When broken and weathered, it takes on a surface patina with range of colours, including white, red, yellow, orange or pale blue. This is because it is a slightly porous material and may be altered by minerals dissolved in surrounding groundwater. Flints are found all over the Brecks, and often show a long history of transformations. The ones exposed longest to weathering have the deepest patinas. Some of them show evidence of having been rolled and abraded in glacial melt-waters or beneath ice sheets; others have dimples in their cortex (potlid fracturing) caused by periglacial frost action.
Fresh flint nodules bedded in the wall of a Brandon chalk quarry.
A flint showing heavy staining, weathering and ‘potlid’ fracturing.
A hundred years ago, Lingheath was a lunar landscape of chalk mounds and flint pits. The miners would dig their pits or ‘burrows’ and pile up chalk spoil in a horseshoe shape around the hole; the entrances typically faced south to capture more daylight. The land has now been reclaimed for farming, but grassed-over remnants of the old pits can still be seen in the forest at Session Heath (see map). You can work out where the entrances were.
A Lingheath flint mine, 1931. Photo © British Geological Survey P205613
The debris from the flint industry used to be piled up at the eastern end of town. Some of it went as ballast for the railway; some went to build local walls, for example at Gashouse Drove (see map). Some cottages in Brandon are made from specially squared flints.
A wall at Gashouse Drove made from gunflint knapping waste.
Once extracted, the flint was taken to workshops in Brandon, where it was broken into manageable chunks (known as quartering), then flaked and knapped into gunflints. The industry dwindled and died out in the mid-20th century. One of the last places it took place was in the sheds behind the Flintknappers Arms pub. For more information about this historic industry visit Brandon Heritage Centre (see map) or Thetford Museum.
Mr Edwards quartering a flint, 1931. [Photo © British Geological Survey P205616]
Surviving remains of flint mine pits are best seen at Session Heath - see Ordnance Survey Explorer map no.229 ‘Thetford Forest in The Brecks’ (c.TL 795 847). NB they are on private land, but visible from the publicly accessible forest track. They are best accessed by footpaths from Brandon Country Park or High Lodge Visitor Centre, where there are car parking, leisure, café and restroom facilities.