Our beloved Mile Cross is sat on a bedrock of chalk, and on top of this chalk sits the deposits of gravels and clay left behind when the Ice sheets receded during the last Ice age. For millennia after the Ice sheets retreated northwards from where they came, the Wensum has been hard at work, slowly stripping back those layers as it snakes its way back and forth across the landscape, digging out what is now the Wensum Valley and helping to define the topography of the Estate we are familiar with now.
As it does so it exposes the chalk bedrock making it easier for the many generations of humans to excavate:Chalk is a form of limestone, made of a salt – calcite – formed only in deep marine environments (at the bottom of the sea) and it is made from the remains of millions of tiny shells (or coccoliths).
In the 19th and 20th centuries chalk was a valuable commodity, often converted to lime for construction and agricultural purposes. To break down high levels of clay and to neutralise the unwanted acidity of soil farmers would often add lime to their top soils to balance the PH values and to improve crop yields. One of the problems with lime is that it is susceptible to moisture damage and therefore difficult to transport over long distances. Because of this most farms with access to chalk would have had their own limekiln on site, or failing that they would have needed to buy their lime from somebody who owned a local lime kiln and access to a lot of chalk. Handily for the farms around the North-Western fringes of the city, they had the option to visit a chap like ‘Putty’ Pearce (photographed below in 1926 with his two children):
Phillip ‘Putty’ Pearce acquired the bit of land between Aylsham Road and Drayton Road, opposite Wensum Park back in 1860’s and for the next 60 years, he and his family lived and worked on the site, extracting the chalk to be converted into lime. A large lime kiln was built on site, measuring about 30 feet wide and 20 feet deep in which the chalk was left to burn overnight to form the lime. As well as producing vast quantities of lime the family also used the chalk to produce whiting and putty, hence the nickname ‘Putty’ Pearce. Whiting was used for mortar, whiting walls, ceilings and things like chicken sheds and was made by grinding down and cleaning chalk with the use of a treadle. An unfortunate mule would have been employed to walk around this treadle in circles to power the machinery and one of these Mules was named ‘Dolly’. I can only imagine what a boring existence poor Dolly had forever going around in circles and never actually getting anywhere.
Just behind the massive kiln would have been two tunnels, extending into the chalk bedrock. They were both about 25 meters in length and disappeared deep under Aylsham Road and towards the former King Edward Pub. Unfortunately, there is no sign of these former tunnels and they were probably covered over after the site ceased being a chalk quarry, but they would have been roughly where the wall is on the right-hand side of the below photographs:When you step back and look at this site from the Drayton Road you can really notice the sharp drop in the land where the side of the Valley has been quarried away to expose the chalk.
The site covered a large area and the family lived in the fantastic-looking Gothic cottages that stood as 7-9 Drayton Road , slap bang in the middle of it all. Unfortunately these houses were sadly demolished in the 1990’s when most of the site was cleared and half of it was built on to make Lime Kiln Mews. Thankfully our favourite local photographer George Plunkett was on hand to capture the building on film before it was lost for good. George’s photograph can be found by clicking on this link. The entrance gateway to those houses can still be seen to this day and stands as a sad reminder to the site’s former life:
The site was also home to a fairly sizeable orchard, a kitchen garden to grow the family’s food, various farm buildings, a sheep field, an area for goats, storage sheds for the lime, whiting and putty, a travellers camp, and dwelling made from an old Railway Carriage. As you can imagine, the site was very busy and had a lot going on. Access to the site was through two large sets of double gates, only one of which can still be made out amongst the overgrowth, as well as about half of the original flint boundary walls, which although crumbling, still stand opposite to the entrance to Wensum Park. Take a look next you walk or drive past and you can still see parts of the past sticking out towards the road as the sites echo slowly fades into time.
After the Pearce family left for good the site stood empty and unloved until well after the Second World War when the Southern half of the site was taken over by a Builders merchants and Wood yard and that is how I remember it in the 1980’s. There was also a small Kitchen showroom standing next to the Gothic Cottages from which my Nan bought a kitchen from for her Oval Road Bungalow. I also vaguely remember a large billboard advertising the fact that the newly-built Asda was located 1 mile up the Drayton Road. The area was redeveloped fairly recently to build the aptly-named Lime Kiln Mews
Another memory I have of the site is when me and two friends were making our way home from a swim at the much-missed St Augustine’ swimming Pool, it must have been the mid-to-late eighties and we spotted the remains of a tree-house wedged between a double-trunked tree stood in the left-hand corner of the site. We clambered up the flint wall to take a look. When we got to the base of the tree we found a load of brand-new looking electric drills, still in their boxes that had obviously been stolen from somewhere. We decided to go home and inform our parents of our discovery, who promptly called the Police. We were then asked to show the friendly Police Officer where we had found them and I remember feeling so proud of the praise heaped upon us by both our parents and the Police. I imagine the crook who would have returned later to collect his haul would have been less impressed with our gallant actions!
The site has been stood for a while now awaiting its fate and it appears that it won’t have to sit silent for too much longer. Whilst browsing property prices on Rightmove recently I noticed that a selection £240,000 houses were being advertised for sale on the site. A sure-fire indicator that the builders will be on site before too long and it’s for this reason I was prompted into pulling my finger out and finally writing about old ‘Putty’ Pearce.
When I arrived on site this lunchtime to take the photographs for this mostly pre-typed blog entry I found more than I was expecting. Firstly, my suspicions about the site’s imminent development proved to be true; a newly-added banner advertising the fact that the land had indeed been acquired by a developer had been attached to the fence by the remaining vehicle entrance gates:But more interestingly, I found that as the land had been recently cleared by plant machinery, the workers had exposed a bottle dump in the far left-hand corner. This could have been from when the site was being quarried for chalk, or later when the site stood dormant before being converted into garages in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s. What I found in abundance was mostly Victorian – glass bottles, earthenware flasks and some more interesting items of glazed pottery. I might have accidentally taken this interesting-looking Caley’s Ginger Beer bottle home with me:As well as there being many Ginger Beer and Ale bottles, there were a load of Glass Mineral Water bottles from ‘D Drake of Norwich and Lowestoft’.
If you’re the sort of person who’s into collecting this stuff, I recommend that you get over there with a spade, and quickly!
Thanks for reading,