All my life I have been walking within inches of a standing stone I never knew existed.
I spent my first eighteen years teetering between a new town and rolling arable land. One could hitch oneself to a dog and a lead and be out in open country in a couple of minutes.
A track led from the end of the houses to a brook which has been here forever. It ends up at the Thames after some interminable meandering. Where the path meets it there is a ford.
I have watched the ford in drought and flash flood, fished for sticklebacks, stashing them in jars, and picked blackberries overhanging the fresh stream water. I have built dams, fed horses, picnicked and paddled there.
The farmland is now a housing estate. The path- dubbed Quelm Lane- has been tamed so that even a wheelchair can negotiate it. And the other day my daughter wandered down it and asked where the Quelm Stone was.
On further investigation, it seems the Quelm Stone was real, and just a stone’s throw from my old familiar track.
My father says it has been in the area since the ice age, this slab of sandstone. Archaeologists have found evidence that there were two iron age farmsteads there, and the stone was hauled to its present place and stood upright. It was de rigeur at the time.
It has a legend attached as befits any self-respecting monolith. The gods fought over it, and Titan won. It is a distinctive shape: Titan said that any bird with a tail which matched the shape of the stone would have a special ability to communicate with humans. The stone is the shape of a wren’s tail feathers; and so the little bird is conferred with special powers of liaison.
Stones do that, don’t they? You pick one up on the beach and it has its distinctive size and shape and instantly we begin to weave a history or a provenance our of thin air.
It’s so easy to amble past without noticing, even with quite important stones.
The London Stone, for example. A useful bit of rock, this: when the Roman Empire pitched up on the shores of the Thames and began to organise this island, they set about measuring distances. They needed a point of reference.
So they put a stone in the City of London. From the London Stone, they measured all significant distances across Britannia.
The legends go much further. The stone, it is said, comes from an old stone circle which once stood on Ludgate Hill. Even more fantastically, it is the stone from which Arthur’s Excalibur was drawn in stories of old.
You can still see it, you know.
And now with the wonders of modern satellite technology, anyone reading this can go and examine it in situ.
Try Google Street View. The address of the stone which baffled all but the Once And Future King is 111, Canon Street. It looks to be an unassuming office now. Look for something which looks like a fire grating in the wall. It is lit up, usually: a nod to its significance when all about it strives to ignore its presence.
I wonder if it minds being caged and sidelined, this hunk of rock which has braved prehistory, and played a starring role in Iron, Roman and dark ages?
It is said to be the city’s heart: the place where deals were struck; the first Mayor of London was called Henry Fitz-Ailwin De Londdonestone. It used to be bigger, and was set into the wall of St Swithun’s, even as the church took a bombing in the blitz.
As long as the stone of Brutus is safe, goes the legend, London shall thrive.
My last stone has a very shaky hold on fact, although its place in fiction is secure.
Once a poor Gloucestershire boy set out to make his fortune in London. It was said that there, the streets were paved with gold.
It was a lonely business, the City, for a new boy, especially one with no money. He met a small cat who afforded him company and comfort, and the two became inseparable.
But still London was a hard taskmaster and Whittington became so discouraged, he decided to return home.
He only got as far as a milestone on Highgate Hill, it seems, where he sat disconsolately until he heard Bow Bells ringing.
If you have ever heard the peal of London bells you will know how it can lift the spirit as high as the spires. The boy, named Dick Whittington, fancied they were telling him to turn back. He did: and in time became so successful that he rose to the post of Lord Mayor of London.
It’s still there, the milestone, it seems. It sits not far from Archway, in a cage set into the wall of a pub called The Whittington Stone. The crowds of London hurry past: but anyone in need of a pint can stop and consider what it is to persevere in this great city despite all the odds.
Stones are under our feet and all around us. Rarely do we stop to consider that their history outstrips ours by centuries, if not millennia.
But pick up a stone and feel its weight between your fingers. Put it on the desk as you work. And those geological markers will soon start to weave their singular magic.