Chalk is the bedrock of the physical landscape of East Anglia and it forms a ‘chalk belt’ that runs from the Chilterns to the North Norfolk coast. It has shaped the economic and cultural development of this region and forms some of its most beautiful and spectacular landscapes.
Hunstanton chalk samples
Although chalk is not as apparent in Norfolk as in other areas of Britain such as the South Downs, at Seven Sisters and the White Cliffs of Dover, it embraces the North Norfolk coast with chalk cliffs to the West at Hunstanton and to the East at West Runton. There are chalk pits and quarries all over the county, including just up the road from here in Wells, and sub-terranean Norwich is riddled with tunnels where chalk was formerly mined.
West Runton chalk samples
I am using chalk in my next piece of work and decided to collect the material from two different sites that mark the outer boundaries of my ‘place’: Hunstanton, where there are red and white cliffs, and the beach at West Runton where a vein of chalk emerges on the beach and at the bottom of the cliffs. The chalk I find at both sites has broken off from the cliffs, probably from wave action and the force of the tides, and lies scattered across the beach. Huge great lumps, too big to pick up and take home, lie at the top of both beaches under the cliffs, but smaller pieces have been distributed across the sand by the sea. I collect lumps about the size of my fist and smaller pebbles from both places. My intention is to grind them down to a powder and combine the resulting white pigment with a binder to stiffen and colour cloth.
Immediately I can see that the chalk collected from each site is different. The pieces of Hunstanton chalk are rounded and they don’t mark my skin or clothes as I pick them up. They are hard, dry and cold.
The West Runton chalk, on the other hand, is soft and buttery and the greasy surface of each piece has attracted a light covering of sand. It is damp and soft and marks everything it touches. By the time I get home my hands, clothes, bags and the car are covered with a film of white dust.
Before I even try to break it up I know that the properties of each sample is very different; the West Runton chalk will definitely be easier to process than the fragments from Hunstanton. I don goggles and a dust mask and whack a small piece of Hunstanton chalk with a hammer. Nothing happens. I try again, and again it doesn’t break. I get a bigger, heavier hammer. This time it cracks in two, but I can sense that using this material will be a battle. I try the West Runton chalk. One firm tap with a hammer and it breaks into four or five small pieces. It is so soft and breaks very easily. I continue tapping and soon I have a coarse powder.
I take a hard Hunstanton lump and start to grind the softer particles with it. It works well as a pestle and the powder gradually becomes finer. I take more of the softer lumps and continue crushing and grinding until I have quite a large heap. Fine powder rises up with the grinding action and I can feel it drying the skin on my hands and face – I’m glad of the dust mask.
The ground West Runton chalk is the colour of double cream. I suppose it has been yellowed by sand and I wonder whether covering it with water would purify it. I place it in a large bowl of water and wait. Bubbles rise to the surface as air is expelled from between each grain and after a few minutes the chalk has fallen to the bottom and the water has cleared.
I put my hands into the chalky soup and can feel hard lumps. I can squish them between my fingers and they disintegrate. I keep squishing, but there are too many to get a fine powder this way.
I pour off the clear water and realise that, of course, all the large sand and chalk particles are still combined. I place the creamy, chalk mixture on a tray and leave to dry. Soon I’ll be able to mix it with a binder and make a form of coarse gesso to form the foundation of my next piece of work.