by Frank E Earp
The Three Stones Project: Tuesday 27th October 2015 saw me up and about early and, metaphorically speaking, wearing one of my many different hats, the Director of The Three Stones Project (TSP). The TSP, which is entirely my own conception, has been ongoing now for around 4 years, (it really doesn’t seem that long). Over that time I have mentioned it a number of times in my articles. Very briefly, for the new reader or those who may not remember, it was set up to make the first ever complete study of Nottinghamshire’s three well-known Geological features and the landscape which surrounds them. In order of size these three stones are; ‘The Hemlock’ Stone at Bramcote/Stapleford, ‘The Druid Stone’ at Blidworth and ‘Bob’s Rock’, at Stapleford. Each of these ‘stone giants’ has their own story to tell and secrets to unlock.
The Hemlock Stone and Phase One: By the very fact that they are natural Geological features, the three stones have stood in the landscape of our County for an unimaginable amount of time. In the case of the Hemlock Stone, the native bedrock from which it is made was laid down in the Triassic Period, 200 million years ago. Of the three stones, the best know is the Hemlock Stone. It is also possibly the most accessible, in the fact that it stands in a public open space rather than on private land as do the other two. I therefore decided to begin ‘Phase One’ of TSP with this site.
Nottingham Geospatial Institute: The Project has always been and remains ‘unfunded’ and from its out-set TSP has relied on the goodwill of the many experts, individuals and groups I have managed to recruit to it. One of these groups, now a central part of TSP is ‘The Nottingham Geospatial Institute’ (NGI). To quote their own literature, the NGI is ‘a leading cross-disciplinary research and postgraduate teaching institute at The University of Nottingham, on campuses in the UK and China’.
3D Laser Scan: In 2012, with the permission of Broxtowe Borough Council, (the current custodians of the site) and the help of a local scaffolding company, ‘Judd Whyle & Son Ltd.’, the NGI conducted a 3D laser scan of the Hemlock Stone. The object of the exercise was to created the first ever 3D model of the Stone. Fine, I hear you say, but how does this wonderful use of modern technology benefit the project? By its very nature, the Hemlock Stone is slowly and irrevocably disappearing from sight, eroding away before our very eyes. The young D.H. Lawrence noted this fact in 1901 when he wrote “The Hemlock Stone is not nearly as impressive a great rock as a century ago. Since then, decade by decade, Its sandstone has dissolved and eroded…” With the 3D image we have done something no ordinary photographic image, no matter how good the quality, can do. We have capture for future generations the Hemlock Stone in its entirety as it was in a single moment in time. But this is not the only value in producing such an image. For the first time researchers are now able to view and study the Stone in detail from any angle and vantage point they might choose with out the need to visit the site. We can literally take Nottinghamshire’s famous Hemlock Stone anywhere in the World, (in fact it has already been enjoyed by students and experts in China). It is the intention of TSP in the second and third phases of the project to produce similar images of the other two stones.
Unfunded project: As part of a commercial project, the 3D laser scanning of the Hemlock Stone would have cost many thousands of pounds. Even the logistics of erecting the scaffolding platforms, taking up almost the entire workforce of the company, must have cost a considerable sum. However, as previously stated, the entire work was carried out free of charge with all those involved giving their own free time. Likewise after completing the scanning, the complicated processing of the raw technical data used to produce the image had to be worked on by Lukasz Bonenberg of the NGI in his own time. It is for this reason alone that it has been only within the last few months that, as Director of TSP, I have been able to make the processed scanned image public. Although the resulting 3D laser scan of the Hemlock Stone was deemed to be a success, the use of scaffolding to allow access to the top and upper parts proved to leave gaps in the recorded data, meaning that there are a number of ‘holes’ (un-scanned areas) in the model.
UAV scan: Imagine my surprise when I was contacted by Lukasz a few weeks ago to inform me that Geologist at the University had expressed an interest in TSP. But that was not the only news I received. He went on to inform me that via NGI and the University, a private company, ‘Ocuair’ had offered their services to rescan the Stone using the latest UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology. This method uses a remote flying drone carrying the latest digital camera to take hundreds of photographs of the subject, which when process using advanced software, produces an extremely accurate 3D model. Of course, I could not say no to this offer and arrangements were quickly made to carry out the work. Not only this, but the survey was to be carried out in the full glare of the local media.
Early start and Breakfast Show: So it was that together with my son Joe, I found myself, at 6.45 am on the 27th Oct, dragging my old bones up the steep hill to the foot of the Hemlock Stone. Even the dog-walkers were not about that early. Arrangements had been made to meet up with a reporter from B.B.C. Radio Nottingham and do an interview for the ‘Breakfast Show’. At just after 7 am the ‘radio car’ arrived and my not so dulcet tones were broadcast live to the good people of Nottinghamshire (at least those who were listening in). It wasn’t long before the rest of the team, – Lukasz from NGI and Richard Gill, the Ocuair’s operations director and drone pilot, – turned up. They too were given the opportunity to broadcast their part in the mornings operations. This however, proved to be just the prelude of what was to come, yet more interviews and filming for B.B.C. T.V. and the University’s own media.
Cameras rolling: By 8 am the flat area of grass at the foot of the hill where the Hemlock Stone stands had begun to resemble a car park. Geeta Pendse a well know local reporter for B.B.C. East Midlands Today, along with a ‘camera-man’, had arrived on schedule. It wasn’t long before Richard had his drone, – looking like something out of a Si Fi Movie, – flying in the air above the Stone. All of the time it was in the air, the rather spider like drone sent back live video footage of what its camera was pointing at to a monitor on the ground. To the delight of all present, including a couple of members of the public, we were treated to our first birds eye view of the Stone. However, the camera action was not all one-way. Recording the flight was not only the B.B.C., but also the University’s own camera man and reporter and of course Joe. For me, the real hard work of the morning came in the form of doing two recorded interviews, one for the BBC and one for the University. It wasn’t so much doing the talking, I’m use to that, it was climbing back up the steep hill to find a suitable spot to record.
Thou petrified Enigma – Question old: Following the first part of this article about the Hemlock Stone, laser scanners and UAV’s, I suspect that there are a number of readers who are thinking that the TSP is all about ‘boys with toys’. My answer to that thought is that you might be right, – all be it ‘big boys with expensive toys’. However, there is a serious side to playing with expensive toys. It is only now, with the use of modern technology that TSP is able to settle an argument over an important question, – ‘What is the true origin of the Hemlock Stone?” – that has been going on for the last 400 years. This however, is only the first of many questions that could be answered about the object that Henry Septimus Sutton (1825-1901) calls a “petrified Enigma”.
The argument begins: It is the Antiquarian William Stukeley that provides the first written reference to the Hemlock Stone in ‘Volume One’ of his book ‘Itenerarium Curiosium’, first published in 1724. Stukeley (1687-1765) was an English Antiquary and one of the founders of field archaeology, who pioneered the investigation of Stonehenge. The contents of his book is best described in its sub-title; “An account of the antiquities, and remarkable curiosities in nature or art, observed in travels through Great Britain“. It was Stukeley’s rather cavalier, throw-away comment on the Hemlock Stone, which began the argument as to its origin; – Is the Stone a natural Geological feature or, the bi-product of quarrying?
Stukeley in Nottinghamshire: In 1722 Stukeley was passing through Nottinghamshire following the Roman Road, The Foss Way (now the A46). Whilst recording the ‘remarkable curiosities’ along the road he found time to visit and comment on others elsewhere in the County, including the rock cut chapel known as St. Mary De Roche. It is probably whilst staying at Wollaton Hall as the guest of Lord Middleton that he heard an account of the Hemlock Stone. There is no evidence that Stukeley visited the Stone in person when, after a brief comment on the Hall and its Park, he concludes by saying: “A little beyond, (the park), in the road, upon the brow of the hill, is a high rugged piece of rock, called Hemlock-stone, seen at a good distance: probably it is the remains of a quarry dug from around it”.
Not the Hemlock Stone, but Hemlock-stone: Perhaps I’m being a little pedantic when I say that there are two ways in which Stukeley’s words, “rugged piece of rock, called Hemlock-stone”, can be interpreted. It has always been assumed the Hemlock Stone – written as ‘Hemlock-stone’, – is the given name of the monolith or pillar. However, read the actual words again out-loud. It seems to me that what Stukeley is really saying, is that the material from which the pillar is made is a rock known locally or commonly as Hemlock-stone. To give an example; The sedimentary rock from which the Druid Stone at Blidworth is composed, is Geologically known as ‘Conglomerate,’ but is also more commonly called Pudding-stone. (note that I have used upper case letters as Stukeley would have done, for all proper-nouns, something which has now gone out of fashion). Imagine then if Stukeley had described the Druid Stone in the same style. He might have said: “In an open field, near the village of Blidworth, is a rugged piece of rock, called Pudding-stone, seen at a good distance”.
Perpetuated error: I believe that some time after the publication of Stukeley’s work, his brief paragraph on the wonder of Bramcote became corrupted, perhaps with the addition of ‘the’ between the words ‘called’ and ‘Hemlock-stone’. This simple addition would of course change the whole meaning of the sentence. I am, as far as I am aware, the first to suggest this idea about the name of the Stone. It seems to me that like so many errors in historical research, other writers and researchers have tended to quote the one before without carefully consulting the original reference and thus perpetuating the error. I must admit that I have to an extent been guilty of ‘committing the same sin’. Although I have researched the history and folklore of the Hemlock Stone and surrounding landscape for over 40 years it has taken TSP to re-focus my mind on original thought and research. Quite early in the history of the TSP, an associate member of the team purchased for his own pleasure, an original First Edition of Volume One of Stukeley’s ‘Itenerarium Curiosium’. It is from this volume that I have taken my reference.
Stukeley at work: Previously in this article I’ve described Stukeley’s reference to the Hemlock Stone as “cavalier” and a “throw-away comment”. But why should I have used such carefully chosen words to describe the work of such a well respected writer? There is no doubt that Stukeley was an excellent researchers and writer. Whilst in the field he would, in a careful and scientific manner, examine and take notes of his “antiquities, and remarkable curiosities”. His books are full of printed engravings taken from his own carefully observed drawings.
Local Knowledge: However, Stukeley did not just wonder the Country blindly looking for these things. He was directed to them by those with local knowledge. It is also by questioning those with local knowledge that he was able to gain his first insight into the site and formulate his own considered opinion. When informed of the curious rock outcrop at Bramcote in Nottinghamshire, he appears to have done none of these things.
A throw-away comment: In considering my opinion, I have placed my emphasise on Stukeley’s use of the words “probably the result of quarrying…”. I take this to mean that Stukeley simply did not know what the “high rugged piece of rock, called Hemlock-stone” was. Here lies the root of the committed error when talking about the origins, – and even it would seem the name, – of this curiosity. It is often wrongly repeated that Stukeley states positively that the Stone is the result of quarrying when he does no such thing, – (Hence my use of the term throw-away comment to describe this part of the reference).
Non-committal: We may imagine how Stukeley arrived at this non-committal statement; Firstly, again I state that there is no evidence that he actually visited the site, – on the contrary, I feel that if he had, his opinion would have been radically different. Quite simply, when asking about curiosities in the local, I believe that he was casually informed that there was an an out-crop of native rock locally known as Hemlock-stone, close to the road on the side of a hill in the parish of Bramcote. In return, Stukeley equally offered the not so considered opinion that it was (probably) the result of quarrying. If we read Stukeley’s words beyond his reference to the Hemlock Stone, he continues his journey into Derbyshire. Having apparently satisfied himself that he had been told nothing significant about this site, he appears to have had neither the time nor inspiration/inclination to explore matters further. But as we will later see, Stukeley was not in full possession of all of the relevant information about the site as we are today. Had he been, he might have come to a far different conclusion and the Hemlock Stone would have received a greater write-up in his work.
But what does all this really mean for modern research into the origins of the Hemlock Stone? The answer to my question will become clear in the third part of this article where we will look at all of the potential origins of the Hemlock Stone.
The Great Antiquarians: The Antiquarian William Stukeley’s book ‘Itenerarium Curiosium’, (1724), is the first such great work on antiquities and curiosities to reference the Hemlock Stone. Prier to Stukeley’s book ‘The Antiquities of Nottinghamshire’, first published in 1677 by Nottinghamshire’s own Antiquarian, the great Dr Robert Thoroton, (1623-1678), fails to mention the Stone. This failing by the good doctor was something that was certainly ‘made up for’ in later year by the Society founded in his name. The Leicestershire Antiquarian, John Thorsby (1740-1803), published a revised addition of Thoroton’s work in 1790 and again fails to mention the Stone. However, Thorsby also included in his edition, quotes from the works of his contemporary, Major Hayman Rooke, (1723-1806). Rooke too appears to have been unaware of the Hemlock Stone’s existence. It seems unlikely that he had an aversion to such curious objects in the landscape, for it is Rooke that provides the first reference and image of one of the other ‘Three Stones’, ‘Blidworth Rock’ (aka The Druid Stone). According to Thorsby, Rooke is assured that the cave cut into one of the broad sides is ‘man-made’ but can’t be certain if the Rock is natural or the product of human hands. (sound familiar?). I am certain that if any of these noteworthy Antiquarians had visited the Hemlock Stone in person, they would not have failed to be impressed. Had they also been aware of the ‘Diabolical Missile’ legend and the fact that the good people of the area annual lit a bonfire on its summit on May Morning, we might have had a more favourable account.
“Thou mouldering relic of forgotten time!” For what is perhaps half a century after Stukeley’s first reference, the Hemlock Stone slipped quietly back into obscurity. It is only with the passing of the age of the great Antiquarians and the start of the 19th century that we find a renewed interest by a new generation of modern historians. However somehow, in this interval, Stukeley’s ‘probable quarry’ hypothesis had become a reality. There were those who read his words as a statement of fact; ‘The stone monolith on Stapleford Hill, called the Hemlock Stone, is the product of quarrying’.
19th Century: By the this time the historians, poets and other interested parties who indulged their curiosity towards the Hemlock Stone, opinions as to what they were looking at were firmly entrenched. Writers on the subject of the Stone were (and still are) divided into two camp; those who, without question, excepted Stukeley’s quarry scenario, and those who favour the natural geological argument. The great debate had begun. Even those practitioners of the then relatively new science of Geology added the voice to the debate.
Geology and Geologist: The first proper geological survey of the Stone, the Ordnance Geological Survey, conducted in 1908, concluded that the Stone was entirely the product of nature. Although an image of the Hemlock Stone is used as a logo by the British Geological Society, their survey of the Stone, the British Geological Survey, returned it to being the waste product of Stukeley’s unsupported quarry.
Tourist attraction: It would be tedious for me and the reader, if at this point I was to continue to give further examples of references to the Stone. It is perhaps suffice to say that there are enough to fill a book. The fame of the Stone grew and it became the wonderful tourist attraction it is today. Access to the Stone has always been easy as a public highway pass-by almost at its feet. Throughout the 19th century, the Stone attracted crowds of sightseers and day-trippers. Some admired it for what it is, whilst others could not resist leaving their mark upon it and the more adventuress climbing the 8ms to its summit.
Poetry: It is interesting to note that at-least two of the curious visitors to the great monument were inspired to poetry by its rugged charm. Robert Millhouse (1788-1839), addresses the Stone as “Thou mouldering relic of forgotten time!” His poem reflects on the Stone’s potential demise through natural erosion, hastened by the effect of those who would carve their initials on it. Millhouse laments the fact that he was himself one-such person when in the second and third lines of his poem he say; “Well I remenber how in youth I came, And grav’d yon rude initials of my name.” Henry Septimus Sutton (1825-1901), calls the Stone a “petrified Enigma” and asks of it what he calls an age-old question; “What eyes innum’rable O ages Stone, Have gazed and gazed thy antique form upon?” He then goes on to speculates on the countless tide of humanity that have passed it by and concludes by saying; “At last I stand upon thy withered side, Another drop of that still flowing tide..”
20th Century: At the very start of the 20th century in 1901 a young D. H. Lawrence cast an eye on the Stone and writes in his journal; “The Hemlock Stone is not nearly as impressive a great rock as a century ago. Since then – decade by decade – Its sandstone has dissolved and eroded..” Later, in his book ‘Sons and Lovers’, D. H. Lawrence describing the reactions of a group of visitors to the Stone says: “They expected a venerable and dignified monument. They found a little, gnarled, twisted stump of rock, something like a decayed mushroom, standing out pathetically on the side of a field.”
The Thoroton Society: In the same year as Lawrence took his first look at the Stone, included in the more learned class of visitors was a group of members of the prestigious Thoroton Society. One can only imagine the discussion and debate that ensued whilst they gazed up at the Stone. Certainly the visit produced some excellent academic writing on the subject of the Stone’s origin and history. Not least of these is the work produced by Mr Emsley Coke and Mr Samuel Page, later published in The Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 10 (1906).
Full circle: By the late 1960’s early 1970’s my own ‘eyes gazed and gazed’ on the Hemlock Stone. As an Earth Mysteries writer I was inspired by a booklet, ‘The Enigmatic Hemlock Stone’, published by Dr Robert Morrell. To me, at the time Morrell was the leading expert on the subject and ‘Mr Hemlock Stone’. Together with the Late Paul Nix and Syd Henley, Bob, as I came to know him, made up the members of the first ‘Nottingham Hidden History Team’. All three men became my very good friends and remain so today. After Paul’s death in 2008 my son Joe resurrected to title and reformed the Team. Things have now come full circle and the Nottingham Hidden History Team are once again looking with ’21st century eyes’ at the Hemlock Stone in the form of The Three Stones Project. Only now, using modern technology do we have the ability to answer all of the questions that surround Morrell’s Enigmatic Hemlock Stone.
Of all the unanswered questions that might be asked of the enigmatic monolith called the Hemlock Stone, the most important is that disputed mystery concerning its origin. But why should this be the case? Quite simply this question is the key that will unlock the door to all of the others. However, before we can ever hope to answer any question of origin we must first ask; ‘What is the Hemlock Stone?’ Fortunately there is, based on its Geology, a simple physical description on which all can agree.
Geological description: The Hemlock Stone can be called an ‘Inselberg’, – an isolated pillar native bedrock, (around 8m tall) standing out on the eastern slope of Stapleford Hill, Bramcote Nottinghamshire. It consists, roughly equal parts, of two types of New Red Sandstone, – ‘Nottingham Castle’ Sandstone and ‘Lenton’ Sandstone, – which was first laid-down 200 million years ago during the Triassic Period. Top layer: The top half of the Stone is a dark brown, almost black in places and consists of stratified layers of ‘Nottingham Castle’ Sandstone. This is a medium to coarse-grained sandstone, in which the grains are strongly cemented together by baryte. Bottom layer: The bottom half of the Stone is made up of Lenton Sandstone, a very fine-grained and less well cemented structure and is predominantly red in colour.
Differential erosion: The Castle Sandstone top of the Stone ‘overhangs’ the Lenton Sandstone, giving the whole a rather mushroom like appearance. This effect has been caused by the geological process known as ‘differential erosion’ where the two layers have eroded away at a different rate in accordance with their density and composition.
Possible origins: Knowing what the Stone is, there are only three real possible origins, so three possible answers to the question. Each of these has their own plausibility which I will not attempt to relate here. Quite simply I will give each of these in their turn and leave both the description and analysis of the supporting evidence to the scientific analysis to come. I will however, give where possible, examples of other ‘Inselbergs’ created by the particular origin being discussed.
(1). Natural Geology: By far the simplest answer to the question of the Stone’s origin is that it is a natural geological formation. Such a process would have involved the great forces of glacial, water and aerial erosion first removing the soft layers of Lenton Sandstone from the surrounding landscape and exposing a deposit of the more resistant Castle Sandstone, (a process of natural quarrying). Once exposed this nodule of rock was then subjected to the forces of differential erosion and over aeons of time, produce the shape we see today.
Rock of Ages: If this origin can be proven to be the case, then the Stone’s age can be counted on a geological time scale rather than an historical one. Sutton’s question to the Stone,“What eyes innum’rable O ages Stone, Have gazed and gazed thy antique form upon,” can be answered immediately by saying “Every generation of humans who ever passed through the area would have cast their eyes upon the Stone!”
Comparisons: This possible origin can be directly compared to at least one of a group of Inselbergs on the North Yorkshire Moors. known locally as The Bride Stones. Amongst the Bride Stones is one called ‘The Pepperpot’ which can almost be described as the Hemlock Stone’s twin. Another good natural Geological comparison to the Hemlock Stone is the Devil’s Chimney, near Mount Vernon in Wisconsin, U.S.A. The Chimney is composed of a slightly older sedimentary rock known as St Peter Sandstone and is believed by Geologist to have been created by the eroding forces of the ‘melt-waters, of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago.
(2a). Product of quarrying: Stukeley’s use of the word quarry in his description of the Hemlock Stone creates something of an ambiguity. The process of quarrying is usually taken to mean digging an open pit (a quarry) into the ground to extract a useful product like sand or limestone. If this is applied to the Hemlock Stone site, we might assume then that the product was Lenton Sandstone and the area around the Stone nothing more than a giant sand quarry. At some stage in the operation the ‘quarrymen’ came upon a deposit of the less useful Castle Sandstone and instead of removing it, simply quarried around it. If this origin is proven correct then Stone itself is nothing more than a bi- product, unwanted waste once again sculptured into its current shape by the forces of differential erosion.
(2b). Deliberate quarrying: The ambiguity produced by Stukeley’s use of the word quarry gives us a third potential origin for the Stone, – ‘it is in its own right the deliberate product of quarrying’. There are two possible reasons for this being the case; The first is that the Stone was produced in historic times as a sort of joke, a ‘man-made curiosity’ for future generations.
Comparison: Once again if this proves to be the case, there is a direct comparison to be made in the form of ‘The Devil’s Chimney’, a Limestone rock formation in Leckhampton, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. The important point here is the fact that it stands above a disused quarry. This pillar of stone has perhaps more comparisons to the Hemlock Stone than any other existing example. Like the Hemlock Stone it has its own diabolical myth and disputed origin. At least one Geologist has described it as being a natural geological feature subjected to differential erosion. However, popular opinion along with supporting evidence shows it to have been produced by 18th century quarrymen who left it standing as a man-made curiosity.
(2c). Pre-historic monument: The second possibility arising from the idea of deliberate quarrying is that the Stone was produced at sometime in the remote past, (pre-history), as a form of ritual monument. There is already a good body of evidence supporting the idea that the Stone, possibly as a natural object, was the focus of pre-historic attention. However, should it prove to be a deliberately created pre-historic monument, the ramifications would be enormous. I know of no other parallel in Britain and the Stone would be worthy of being a World Heritage site alongside place in Stonehenge.
Looking for evidence: Supporting each of the origin theories, are various degrees of written and circumstantial evidence. The recent UAV scan of the Stone provides us with the ability to examine the structure and surface of the Stone for any further physical evidence lie tool marks, pre-historic ‘rock-art’ and natural erosion. By combining any potential findings from the scan and the knowledge we already posses, it will hopefully be possible to solve the mystery of the Stone’s origin. Having answered this question, the scan will also provide us with a better knowledge of the Stone’s history and a greater appreciation of its continuing place in the landscape.