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Literary Locations #43: The Hemlock Stone

John Baird
Fri 29 Nov, 2019

The Hemlock Stone has inspired legends and writers alike.

The Hemlock Stone is a thirty-foot-tall outcrop of red sandstone near Bramcote that dates back to the Triassic period some 200 million years ago. It’s said that the Hemlock Stone was hurled by the Devil from a hill above Castleton in Derbyshire, the Devil attempting to silence the annoying church bells at Lenton Priory and missing his target. The stone has Christian and Pagan associations and its striking and curious nature invite speculation putting it on the radar of many a Notts writer.

In his book Bypaths of Nottinghamshire History (1905) John Potter Briscoe - a leading and ground-breaking Nottingham librarian - wrote: “‘The Hemlock Stone’ at Bramcote is one of the enigmas of the County, not only to the rank and file of its inhabitants but to the generally well-informed portion of our community.”

The 18th Century poet Dr Spencer Timothy Hall, who went by the name ‘The Sherwood Forester’, believed the stone to be of natural origin but improved by man through artistic quarrying. William Stuckeley was of a similar belief, writing: “A little Beyond Wollaton Hall, in the road, upon the brow of the hill, is a high rugged piece of rock, called Hemlock-stone, seen at good distance: probably it is the remains of a quarry dug from around it.”

The Hemlock Stone may have been part-crafted by man but nature continues to shape its look. As the lower half is eroding more quickly it’s becoming top heavy, the higher section retaining its darkened stain from the industrial revolution.

D H Lawrence visited the stone in 1901. In his semi-autobiographical Sons and Lovers (1913), Paul Morel and his pals were not impressed by it:

“They came to the Hemlock Stone at dinner-time. Its field was crowded with folk from Nottingham and Ilkeston. They had 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. Leonard and Dick immediately proceeded to carve their initials, "L.W." and "R.P.", in the old red sandstone; but Paul desisted, because he had read in the newspaper satirical remarks about initial-carvers, who could find no other road to immortality. Then all the lads climbed to the top of the rock to look around.”

Henry S Sutton went one better than Lawrence, writing a long poem about the stone. Sutton was the son of the Nottingham bookseller Richard Sutton and the brother the author Eliza S. Oldham. Sutton's poem reflects upon the years of visitors from 'lovers and maidens' to ‘cavalier’ and writes of sacrificial ceremony and blood sacrifice at this ‘alter cut by Nature’s hand’. Here's a taste:

‘What eye innumerable, O aged stone,

Have gazed, and gazed, thine antique form upon!'

and

'Roman soldier, medieval knight, the Cavalier and the Roundhead, who may have visited the rock.

Serf, farmer, village-fool. Ages on ages

Of human life hast seen thee onward glide.

At last I stand upon thy withered side,

Another drop in that still flowing tide.’

Henry S Sutton’s poem is a fitting ode to this large pillar of rock on a hillside near Bramcote.

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