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Weeting Castle to Grimes Graves

Travel in time from a 12th-century moated house to a prehistoric flint mine.

Distance 7.5 miles (12.1km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 148ft (45m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Farm tracks and gravel tracks through forest, 1 stile

Landscape Farmland and commercial forest

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 229 Thetford Forest in the Brecks

Start/finish TL 776891

Dog friendliness Dogs must be kept on leads in forest and near farms

Parking Lay-by at Weeting Castle, next to church

Public toilets None on route

Notes Entrance fee for Grimes Graves, even to park

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1 Park in the sandy lay-by at the sign for Weeting Castle. Walk across the meadow to look at the remains of this fortified manor house, then follow the farm track past St Mary's Church with its round tower, originally 12th century, but rebuilt by the Victorians in 1868. Go through Home Farm, then jig left then right, passing curious sows in their pens to your left. After the pig enclosures, turn right.

2 At the junction by Sunnyside Cottage, take the left-hand turn, following the track with deciduous woodland on the left and a field on the right. After about a mile (1.6km) cross the A1065 (very carefully), turn right and walk for about 350yds (320m) on the verge.

3 Go left up the paved lane signposted to Grimes Graves. Stay on this road for about 1¼ miles (2km), until you see a sign on your right for Grimes Graves. You will need to pay an entrance fee to visit the site (entrance is free to English Heritage members). With its shop and exhibition area it is an interesting place to take a break. When you have looked around the mines, take the southerly track across the heath that leads to the perimeter fence.

4 Turn right at the fence and walk along it until you reach the corner of the site, where there is a stile. Climb over this and walk a few paces to where there is a sunken water butt with a corrugated-iron roof, looking like a house that has half-disappeared into the ground. Go straight across this junction and walk along the sandy track to the A1065 again. Despite the proximity of the main road, you're in the depths of prime forest here, where you can stand and hear nothing more than the trill of birdsong.

5 Cross the A1065 and take the sandy track directly opposite, near the sign for Emily's Wood. After a short walk, the woods give way to farmland again. Pass Brickkiln Farm and ignore the track going off to the right. When you reach the end of the field, turn right and walk along the side of Shadwell's Plantation, a wood that was planted in memory of the poet Thomas Shadwell, a resident of Weeting who died in 1691. The track turns slightly left, and rejoins the outward path by Sunnyside Cottage. Retrace your steps past the pig farm back to the car park.

All that remains of Weeting Castle are a few teetering, rugged grey stone walls standing amid mature trees and long grass. It is difficult to imagine that in the 12th century, this was a comfortable and relatively secure house. It comprised two floors; the lower one was used for storage and the upper one provided the main accommodation. The order to build it was probably given by the powerful William de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey, who enjoyed the friendship of William the Conqueror. The man who did all the work as far as the building was concerned, however, was Hugh de Plais, de Warenne's tenant at Weeting.

Weeting Castle was never intended to be a serious defensive structure, like de Warenne's sturdy motte and bailey at nearby Castle Acre, but was a manor house surrounded by a wet moat. It would not have hindered a serious attack, but was sufficient to repel the casual robber. The moat was rectangular and still exists, albeit in a rather more shallow form than the original.

At the other end of the walk lie the mysterious humps and bumps in the grass that represent Europe's largest prehistoric flint mine. These were dug by folk in the Stone Age some 4,000 years ago, and were a large and prosperous enterprise. High-quality Grimes Graves flint has been found many miles distant, suggesting that it was greatly prized for making sharp tools (like axe and arrow heads) and that it was in demand over much of southern England.

For many years, no one knew how the peculiar pitted surface of this area had been formed. Various explanations emerged. Some proposed that the pits were actually graves, while the Saxons believed they were devil's holes, perhaps made by the pagan god Grim - hence the name Grimes Graves. It was not until 1870 that they were properly excavated, and then it was discovered that the 300 or so circular depressions are actually filled-in mine shafts. The pits therefore had a perfectly rational and practical explanation, dispelling the aura of mystery that had hung over the site for centuries. However, if you visit very early in the morning, when mist swirls over the hollows and only birds break the silence, you will understand very well how legends of pagan sacrifices and sculpting by the devil originated.

The rock in the shafts is very hard and it is amazing to think that all this was hacked out by men using picks made from the antlers of red deer. Their objective was to locate nodes of hard, black flint with no flaws. This was roughly knapped on a site near by and then sent off to be traded for other goods.

What to look for

Today, most of the shafts at Grimes Graves are blocked up, but English Heritage has excavated one, and visitors can don hard hats and climb down into its depths. The ladder descends about 30ft (9m) to a bulb-like hollow, where several short tunnels have been dug off to the sides. English Heritage runs regular flint knapping demonstrations throughout the year, sometimes by men in prehistoric costumes.

Where to eat and drink

There is nowhere for you to stop actually on the route, unless you take a picnic, although you can buy sweets and chocolate at the English Heritage shop at Grimes Graves. For something more substantial, there is plenty of choice at Thetford - about 7 miles (11.3km) to the south east of Weeting - including a wide range of pubs and restaurants and small cafés. There are also pubs in Brandon, which lies 2 miles (3.2km) south of Weeting.

While you're there

Visit historic Thetford (PWalk 30) with its 12th-century Cluniac priory and its huge 11th-century castle mound. At Santon Downham the High Lodge Forest Centre, provides visitors with information about activities and events in the area of the forest. Bressingham Steam Museum, Banham Zoo and Tropical Butterfly World are all within easy access.

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