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Out of Time: The History of the Hemlock Stone

27 April 22 words: George White
illustrations: Natalie Owen

On the outskirts of Stapleford lies a striking phenomenon in the form of the Hemlock Stone. Believed to have been a focal point for communities ranging from the Celts to the Romans, this fascinating rock formation has baffled locals for millenia, with some claiming it was the work of the Devil himself. We investigate this magnificent marvel in further detail…

Stonehenge? Never heard of it, mate. There’s only one near logic-defying rock structure to care about around here - and it sits atop a hill in the glorious town of Stapleford. Formed of sandstone that is believed to have been deposited over 200 million years ago, the Hemlock Stone has mesmerised the people of Nottinghamshire for centuries - and has led to countless theories, both wild and rational, about how exactly it came to stand where it does now, overlooking the endlessly busy A6002. 

Standing at just under thirty feet in height, this work of wonder consists of two different types of rock, both members of the Sherwood Sandstone Group - a family of stone that is prominent throughout the Midlands and was first formed in the Triassic period, back when dinosaurs were only just beginning to dominate Planet Earth. The Stone’s upper half consists of Nottingham Castle Sandstone, a strong rock that shaped - you guessed it - the city’s Castle Rock, which holds aloft the famous former home of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Described as a “medium to coarse-grained, cross-stratified sandstone” by the Mercian Geologist, this yellowish grey formation is strongly resistant to the elements, helping it to avoid extensive erosion for millions of years. 

The lower half of the Hemlock, though, is made of significantly more fragile Lenton Sandstone, which is far less resistant to erosion. This has led to a weakening of the structure, producing the distinctive jagged exterior that is now so well-known. Its markedly different red-brown colour also leaves the Stone with a striking two-tone hue, clearly defining the point at which one form of sandstone ends and the other begins. 

Boasting astonishing colours and a surreal shape that is bordering on the supernatural, it is clear to see why many throughout history have come up with rather unusual theories as to how the Hemlock was formed. None has proven more unusual than that of some mediaeval scholars, who claimed that the Devil himself launched the rock from forty miles away in Castleton, Derbyshire, because he was sick of the sound of church bells ringing in the area. Unfortunately, though, this theory has been poo-pooed by geologists, who have highlighted the fact that there is no Triassic sandstone to be found in the Castleton region.

Another Devil-related theory was shared around this time. Some believed that a monk in Lenton Priory could sense the presence of Lucifer nearby, and began to pray for him to show himself. Angered at the rude interruption, the Devil arose from his sleep on Stoney Clouds near Sandiacre and hurled the rock to try and destroy the Priory, aiming to kill the monk too. His throw was off, though, and the Stone landed just short. 

One of the most prominent users of the site were reportedly the druids, the priesthood of the Celts

By the eighteenth century, the hypotheses circulated had become significantly more sensible (or boring, depending on who you ask), with William Stukeley - a key figure in the development of archaeology and one of the first to study Stonehenge - suggesting that the Hemlock was the result of quarrying, with the Stone simply left behind when operations ceased in the area.

This was disputed in 1908, with the Ordnance Geological Survey stating its belief that the Stone was the product of natural erosion. This is largely due to a lack of documented quarrying activity around Stapleford, leading experts in the early twentieth century to claim that the real reason for the Hemlock’s unique shape was the wear and tear caused by Quaternary glaciation, an ice age period that began around 2.5 million years ago. 

However, the current stance of the British Geological Survey now favours the theory of Stukeley, believing the legendary figure had nailed the cause of the Stone’s formation even hundreds of years ago. This is because, while there may be a lack of formal evidence that mining activities took place around Stapleford, common sense suggests that this was still the case. As the organisation’s Andy Howard puts it, “Even a casual stroll around Stapleford Hill reveals copious evidence of former quarrying on all sides of the Hill and around the Hemlock Stone itself. This includes several old quarry faces and spoil heaps in various states of degradation, indicating a long history of quarrying.” Work was likely to have focused on the Lenton Sandstone, Howard continues, for the purpose of moulding sand, although Nottingham Castle Sandstone could also have been targeted in lesser quantities. 

The creation of the Stone itself may well have occurred as those conducting the mining operations became wary of toppling the structure and brought their work to a halt, leading to the gravity-opposing pillar that is visible today. Further evidence of quarrying comes from the coating of industrial grime that Howard believes pre-dates the presence of modern air pollution, strongly vindicating the explanation put forward by Stukeley. 

Whatever the origins of the Hemlock Stone, whether it was created by the Devil or by miners, it has become a popular focal point for a whole host of different communities - spiritual and otherwise - throughout human existence. One of the most prominent users of the site were reportedly the druids, the priesthood of the Celts. Legend has it that the Hemlock will have once been a centre of ritual for these religious leaders, who would have had easier access to the top of the Stone over a thousand years ago than is available now. They would use this as a natural altar for rituals, as well as the location for Celtic festivals such as Beltane, during which fires would be lit on the surface of the rock on the night before May Day. It is believed the druids will have been particularly fond of the area because of the surrounding oak woodland, which was seen as divine by the Celts, as well as the nearby ‘sacred spring’, a no longer existent body of water which was dubbed the ‘Healing Well’ for extensive periods. 

Some historians have claimed the Hemlock Stone was significant for communities even before this time, its importance stretching back to long, long ago. It has been argued that the rock was key in the Bronze Age as it was used as a monument marking the end of the Derbyshire Portway, the ancient track between Mam Tor in the north of Derbyshire and Stapleford Hill, which has been used by travellers for thousands of years. 

A more unsettling section of local folklore arose, which suggested that witches would use poisonous hemlock plants while creating potions on Stapleford Hill

Even the Romans became familiar with the Hemlock, establishing what has now become Coventry Lane as a nearby route to their fort at Broxtowe. After their reign in the county came to an end, the Stone is believed to have become a site for open-air preaching in religions including Protestantism, with large groups making annual processions to the spot for this purpose. 

There has been a long-running debate over the origins of the rock’s name since these periods. Some believe that it could have been derived from its use on the Portway, potentially evolving from the term ‘hemm’, meaning border. Other theories have posited that it may have been named by ninth century Danish settlers, with the word ‘hemmelig’ meaning overhanging - a suitable term for the imposing Stone. A more unsettling section of local folklore also arose, which suggested that witches would use poisonous hemlock plants while creating potions on Stapleford Hill. 

While these witches have since vacated the site, the Hemlock Stone has been at the centre of numerous other activities in more recent years. In June 2002, residents started a bonfire on top of the Stone, joining a worldwide network of over 2,000 lit beacons as a celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Since then, the popular annual Hemlock Happening festival has taken place in the Bramcote Walled Gardens near the rock, with hundreds of visitors gathering for a celebration of the talents of local schools, community groups and individuals - with fireworks set off from the Hemlock Stone to bring each event to a close. 

The rock has become such an important part of local culture that it is now proudly placed on the logo of the East Midlands Geological Society, and the site of Stapleford Hill regularly attracts tourists from near and far. The Stone remains a fascination of British geologists, too; in 2015, a drone was used to create a 3D model of the feature for further research, in the hopes of gaining a deeper insight into the nature and formation of the phenomenon. 

Whether the Hemlock Stone will remain for the rest of time is difficult to predict, though. Of course, there is no risk of the rock crumbling in our lifetimes, but Howard has stated that eventually the weaker Lenton Sandstone will erode away and the pillar is likely to fall. Although this will not take place for an almost unthinkable amount of time, the idea that this wonderful feat of nature - or of ancient industrialism - may one day crumble to the ground is a sad one. Acting as a focal point for so many communities, and continuing to wow both locals and those from further afield, the Hemlock Stone is certainly one of the county’s most compelling commodities.

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