When Stones Go Wandering
By Jeremy Harte
Originally published at Imbolc 2003
The Wimblestone can be found on a hillside at Shipham in Somerset: at least, that's where it can be seen during daylight hours. At night the old stone roams the hills, going over to see the Waterstone at Wrington, and stopping off for a drink before it returns home. Farm-workers who pass by late at night have seen it rustling along the hedge, a huge dark shape lumbering towards them. When the moon is full on a Midsummer Night, it dances around the field, and for a brief hour all the gold that lies hidden in the hole underneath can be plainly seen, glittering in the moonlight. But it would be death to rush across and try to grab a coin. The stone is very nimble, and resents intruders (Tongue & Briggs 1965: 12).
The activities of the Wimblestone are not unusual - at least, not by traditional standards. Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, Leslie Grinsell's definitive survey, found thirty-six other stones that move. Sometimes they just turn around, sometimes they dance, sometimes they cross the road, or go to drink or bathe at a nearby river (Grinsell 1976: 56-60). Naturally they do all these things when nobody is looking. The exact time varies from stone to stone - it may be on Midsummer Night like the Wimblestone, or it may be at Hallowe'en, or New Year's Eve, or some other time when you would expect marvellous things to happen. Sometimes it happens at a particular time of day. The megaliths of the Hoar Stone long barrow in Gloucestershire walk around the field at midnight, as does the Tinglestone in the same county. The Long Stone at Minchinhampton runs round and round when it hears the clock strike midnight, the same hour at which the Whittlestone used to go down to Ladywell to drink (Grinsell 1976: 141-4 ).
At this point, if the tale is being told properly, there should be a great emphasis on words like 'when it hears'. Stones don't hear the chimes of midnight, or church bells, or cockcrow, or any of the other things that serve as markers for time in these stories. The tradition may just be a joke, the sort of trick question used by mischievous adults to tease small children. After all, these moving stones are never the subject of a full-blown folktale; the statement is just made in a cursory way, part of local knowledge. The nearest approach to a legendary account is that of the Wimblestone with which we began, and that comes from Ruth Tongue, who was a dab hand at embroidering a tale.
Certainly some versions of the basic story go out of their way to pile impossibility on impossibility. The Pyrford stone in Surrey turns around when it hears the clock of St. Nicholas' church strike midnight, even though the church has never had a clock. In Shropshire the Lea Stone spins round, but only when it hears the clock strike thirteen (Williamson & Bellamy 1983: 122). Maybe all the other forms of this story are simply jokes, too. Maybe nobody ever took them seriously apart from a few credulous archaeologists.
And maybe not. These midnight and cockcrow stories, the ones that sound like practical jokes, are all recorded in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the folklore of wandering stones goes back to a much earlier date. Nennius describes a stone in a Welsh valley 'which moves at night.and though it should be cast into the sea, or into a cataract, it would be found on the margin of the same valley' (Folklore 50 (1939) p33ff). This was the Maen Morddwyd, the Stone of the Thigh, which could be found at Llanidan in Anglesey. It also acted as a contraceptive, although this effect seems to have worn off by the eighteenth century. So had its power of miraculous return: at all events, when someone borrowed the stone and forgot to return it, it was never seen again.
The sources do not make it clear just what sort of a stone the Maen Morddwyd was, although in view of its portability it can hardly have been a prehistoric monolith. That is an important point, because again and again these tales of moving stones are supposed to have had something to do with the megalithic past. Grinsell began collecting such beliefs in the hope that some of them might have survived from thousands of years ago, although he eventually concluded that he had been mistaken. Janet and Colin Bord took a much more exciting line in their classic The Secret Country, suggesting that these stones walked, turned, drank or danced because they were, in some sense, alive. Earth currents pulsed through them, triggered by cosmic influences from the heavens, and filling the stones with a mysterious energy (Bord & Bord 1978: 144-151). That may sound like a piece of vintage 1970s hokum, but it appears, essentially unchanged, in books that are hot off the press such as The Fairy Faith (Roney-Dougal 2003: 25). The image of the living stone was powerful enough to inspire more than ten years of fieldwork by the Dragon Project at the Rollright Stones (Devereux 1990: chapter 4) and although Paul Devereux never actually caught the King Stone turning around, or the Whispering Knights sloping off for a drink, he was satisfied that the stones had a secret life of magnetic, ultrasonic and radiation energies which could hardly have been suspected by a casual observer. It is hard to avoid the temptation to link this with their folklore. 'Stones moving at stated times could be ancient references to those moments when the earth energies were most suited to what was required. Also, I can vouch personally that when one touches a stone to feel the energies, the stone can sometimes feel as if it is swaying or pulsating, this sensation perhaps giving birth to the moving stone tales'? (Knight 1996: 19).
But while they are all of great interest to the mystic, the stones which are traditionally supposed to turn and move will strike an archaeologist as a bit of a mixed bag. Some come from the ruins of chambered cairns, some are standing stones, quite a few appear to be wayside boulders of no particular age, and the list includes mediaeval crosses and such natural features as the Cheesewring on Bodmin Moor. In order to channel mysterious forces, or even the natural energies monitored by the Dragon Project, it seems that all you need is a stone or boulder of any age, natural or artificial, standing upright in a field somewhere. Folklore about moving will attach itself to any stone which forms an obvious landmark and which is - well, immoveable.
That much is obvious. There would be no point in telling these stories if they were not absurd, if they didn't contrast the massive permanence of stone with the incongruous idea of an age-old boulder going for a wander and dropping in on some friends. Significantly, there are no stories of wandering trees, even though landmark trees are by all accounts as full of earth energy as standing stones. The reason isn't far to seek: there's nothing incongruous about a moving tree, because trees already naturally move. Not purposefully, mind you, and they don't actually run around fields, but they do grow and bend and wave in the wind, and they are obviously alive. But a living stone is a contradiction in terms, a challenge to the imagination, and that makes it into good material for creating stories. Ironically, if ancient peoples actually had perceived stones as throbbing conductors of terrestrial energy, rather than stone-dead lumps of matter, they would have had no incentive to create these paradoxical tales in the first place.
So there is something more to these stories than joking, even when they are being created and passed down as jokes. But if the unspoken aim is to point the contrast between vital movement and stony immobility, then why are these stories restricted to ancient sacred sites? The answer, embarrassingly enough, is that they aren't. It's just that until recently, nobody had bothered to look into the matter.
'My worst fear was the lions', writes an old-time inhabitant of Gillingham in Dorset, 'great stone creatures outside a hotel in the main street. My teasing uncle would keep telling me that when these lions heard the church clock strike twelve, either at noon, or at midnight, they stood up and walked down to the millpond to drink. In vain my harassed parents tried to explain to me that, being made of stone, they could not possibly hear anything at all, but uncle would insist they were magic, and I believed him. Consequently nights at Gillingham were haunted by nightmares of lions' (Dorset Year Book 1966/7 p49).
The lion who sits above the porch of the Red Lion in nearby Sturminster Newton also gets down from his plinth at the stroke of twelve, and prowls down to the river Stour for a drink. Another pair of lions, with proud but weatherworn heads, can be seen by the gates to Stalbridge Park, guarding a house which was built in the seventeenth century. They cannot have guarded it very well, as the mansion was demolished in 1822, but the lions are still there and when they hear the church clock strike midnight, they saunter off to drink from a nearby pond. The two lions on the gateposts for Melbury House - another seventeenth-century mansion, this one still standing - are known to do the same (Waring 1977: 35-6). On the other side of the country, in the crowded streets of Cambridge, the lions that flank the entrance to the Fitzwilliam Museum wait for midnight to go and drink from the gutters, or roar, or pay a visit to the museum, depending on which version you believe (Readers Digest Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain, 1973: 232). Not to mention the lions outside the brewery at Hartlepool, who don't walk at night but do burst into frenzied roaring every time a virgin walks past (Screeton 1985: 4-5). They haven't been heard much, lately. And they're not the only ones. This whole lions-and-virgins complex has been the subject of extensive correspondence in FLS News.
It's not just lions, either. Late-night drinkers might reasonably expect some kind of odd behaviour from pub signs - no closing time in those days, remember - and tradition backs them up. Safely incarcerated in Devizes Museum is a plaster bull which, according to the label, used to step off the front of the Bull Inn and amble around the streets in the early hours of the morning. And many other creatures apart from lions are to be found getting down from the gateposts of aristocratic estates. There are the stone wolves on the pillars at Wootton Fitzpaine, the stone dogs that stand outside the entrance to Bryanston House, the pelicans that guard Melplash Court; and that's just Dorset. Plus the Jack-of-the-Clock on the historic timepiece in Wimborne Minster, who climbs to the ground and goes for a walk from time to time (Waring 1977: 36-8). Did I mention the weathercock on Queen Camel church, which goes to drink for the river when it hears the clock strike twelve? (Read 1923: 173). And there's Beaminster in west Dorset, too. 'Lester tried to make me believe that every time the cock on Beaminster tower did hear the chimes play twelve, he did go down Flatters Shoot to drink' (Dorset Record Office D459/1).
These are all variants on the tale which is told about dolmens and standing stones. During the past thirty years, the connection has been made repeatedly - by Ted Waring, by Paul Screeton, by Jacqueline Simpson (in the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore s.v. 'statue') and by Phil Quinn, amongst others. Quinn found a set of gargoyles on the church of Farmborough which leapt down on the stroke of midnight to drink in the village stream; this is the same Farmborough where the dogs get off the gateposts of the big house at midnight (Somerset & Avon Life 8vi (1984) p57). He also tracked down a stone eagle on Eagle House at Batheaston which picks up a stone cup and flies to fill it from the river nearby. And there is Sally-on-the-Barn, who may or may not be a statue of Ceres, but who certainly gets down from her post on the barn at Harnham Abbots. Midnight on Midsummer Eve is a bad time to be around, as it is then she alights in search of a victim (Quinn 1998: 8-9).
So already, sticking pretty much to the counties of Somerset and Dorset, we have collected enough examples of walking statues to rival the total figure for England quoted by Grinsell in his list of walking megaliths. It is starting to look as if the Gillingham lions are the normal form of this story, and the Wimblestone is an exceptional variant. Remember that old-style antiquaries used to go around the countryside asking questions about ancient stones, and carefully recording them in a big book, whereas very few people are interested in the archaeology of nineteenth-century gateposts or the plasterwork above pub doors. Systematic enquiry would find many more examples of this type, and in any case new examples are coming into being all the time, like the statues of Catholic martyrs that stand on the edge of South Walks in Dorchester. On misty nights they step down and roam around the town. This is local tradition, for sure, but it can't date back much before the 1980s, as the statues were put up then.The Dorchester statues are gaunt, dark, mysterious-looking sculptures, and at first glance they have no very obvious purpose. This makes them a natural focus for legends. Ordinary people, knowing nothing of heraldry, must have felt the same way about all those lions and wolves and eagles that snarled beside the locked gates of stately homes. Until recently, most statues apart from those in a few big cities were shut away in the parks and grounds of the gentry; they were mysterious images in forbidden places. Anything might be expected there, and it was not unreasonable to suppose that a Roman centurion stepped down from his plinth every day and went into Lulworth Castle for lunch (Wright 1995: 60). Another statue steps out at midnight in Lacock Abbbey, while in the grounds at Hinton St. George, it is the figure of Diana that gets down off her pedestal to drink when the clock strikes twelve (Wiltshire 1984: 109; Palmer 1973: 111). Before the Renaissance, there was much less outdoor statuary of any kind. Mediaeval sculpture was either religious, in which case it would have belonged in a church, or it was classical, and had probably been dug up from the temple of some half-forgotten god. Either way, representative art had more power and more life than we can imagine in our image-laden culture. There is the story of a young reveller who promised an engagement ring to the prettiest girl in town and then, in a drunken fit, slipped it onto the figure of a lovely statue. Running off to join his companions, he though nothing more of the matter, but on returning to retrieve the ring, he found that the effigy had twisted her finger inwards and was gripping it, with a calm smile on her face. The older story-tellers finished off the tale in two ways - sometimes the statue is Venus, and the young man has to be exorcised; sometimes it is Mary, and he has to leave the world for a monastery. Either way, it suggests that you shouldn't mess around with statues.
The heritage of classical antiquity gave myth-makers of the Middle Ages a rich resource on which they could draw when they wanted to tell an eerie tale. For them, the Roman past was an inexhaustible, jumbled hoard of lost treasures and wonderful things. But what past was there to inspire the Romans themselves, or the Romanised Celts? It is natural for sculptors to develop the tradition that came before them, but as we go back in time the artwork gets plainer and plainer, until it hardly looks like sculpture at all. The first embodiments of Diana or Ceres or Cernunnos must have been little more than logs or stones, stones which were made alive by veneration and tradition and not by art.
Such was Tauribariba, who was an ancestor or, depending on how you look at it, a small stone no bigger than one's outstretched hand. He can currently be found cemented into the walls of the cathedral at Dogura in the south-eastern tip of Papua New Guinea. Until 1936 he formed part of a large stone circle nearby, having been changed into a stone in mythical times when he and his sister came ashore to the land of Wamira. He watched over the gardens of Wamirans, and protected their food: 'he lived there and walked around by night' (Kahn 1996: 180).
People say that there are no surviving prehistoric traditions, but this sounds very much like one. Of course, as prehistory in New Guinea lasted until 1936 or thereabouts, this is not very surprising. And an analogy like this does not prove that the people who raised the Whispering Knights at Rollright, or the Long Stone at Minchinhampton, ever held the belief now current at these sites about the stones wandering by night. It just shows that they could well have done so.
The beliefs of country folk in Gloucestershire or Somerset would make a lot of sense in New Guinea. Perhaps their jokes could be translated as well. But there is one belief which might baffle the Wamirans, and that is the one held by old-style earth mysteries: the idea that sacred stones are fragments of a magical technology, conductors of some kind of mysterious voltage. Tauribariba, remember, was not a lump of transducer plugged into some kind of super-electric system: he was an individual, a person who also happened to be a stone. We do not need to travel to the other side of the globe to meet with ideas like this, since they are the common currency of mystics the world over. 'To Ray, the stone known as Long Meg is almost an entity in itself. He speaks of 'Meg' appearing at unlikely times, and communing with him as readily as if it had been a woman spirit of that name. This in itself, I must add, is nothing unusual. Almost all of the people I spoke to, or corresponded with, had the experience of stones being able to 'stay with' them, on inner levels, long after an actual visit' (Richardson 2001: 89)
Nobody is ever going to prove that modern legends of walking megaliths go back to a remote antiquity, and the fact that they are a subset of a larger group of tales concerning statues suggests that this would be a wasted endeavour. But, jocular or serious, all these stories have some bearing on the age-old history of human relationships with landmarks, and with the secret reality which lies (some say) behind the veil of flesh and stone. Go carefully, and if you do dream of great prowling stone lions, make them friendly ones.
Bord, Janet and Colin, 1978, The Secret Country, Granada