To most people they are just stones with holes in them - a curiosity that you might dangle on a nail or use as a key fob - but to observers of the occult or followers of the faerie way they are hag stones and imbued with great magical powers…
Although it is barely 9 miles long the River Crane does have a lot going for it. Between its source at the Yeading Brook in Hayes and its confluence with the Thames at Railshead this humble waterway once powered the mills that produced the gunpowder that beat Napoleon at Waterloo, became the spiritual home for British pop music and in June 1985 provided Hollywood star Lauren Bacall, the widow of Humphrey Bogart, a chance to view some stock locations from one of his most famous films “The African Queen” and if that isn’t enough…
…The Crane is also a place where you will find - if you care to look - the magical Hag Stones, known to their users as witch stones, Odin Stones, adder stones, serpent’s or snakes eggs or holey stones.
Revered by students of the supernatural these fairly commonplace pebbles - the flint with a hole? - apparently have the ability to cure most diseases, including eye infections, whooping cough and snake bite and ward off witches and other agents of the devil. Look through the hole in the stone and you will be granted a view of fairy land and its inhabitants. Hang one over your front door and it will keep out negative influences. Put one under your pillow at night and you will never be bothered by nightmares. They can even protect ships at sea…
“Well within my remembrance… it was not uncommon for row-boats at Weymouth to have ‘holy stones’ tied to nails or staples in the bows, close beneath the gunwale. I once saw a man in the act of doing this at the quayside. Holy stones were beach-pebbles with a natural hole through them, such as are not uncommon among the shingle. Whether holy from having a hole through them, or from being sacred, or both, I know not”
Dr. H. Colley March “Witched Fishing Boats in Dorset” 1906.
Holey stones are supposed to float in water which may have made them popular with fishermen - although none of these found in our own home river behave in such a remarkable way.
Some say that the holes are formed by the tongues or bites of serpents but a more realistic belief is they are formed naturally by water eroding its way through weak spots in the stones as they roll about in the tide or river current. A geology undergraduate at Birmingham U told me… “It’s just helicoidal erosion really: smaller particles and pebbles bore away little dents in the rock, then more catch in that area because of the dip and it deepens over time - sometimes all the way through. Clever really!” She continues… “or they could have formed from creatures like worms burrowing into the sediment when it hadn’t yet turned to rock, then the burrows are preserved.”
If you want a holey stone or hag stone you need to look along the shingle beds exposed along the Crane when the water is low, perhaps after a period of dry weather. Although there is no mystical process required to find them it is magical when you do. As a white witch from Kent once wrote… “If you are lucky you will find a holey stone, or rather, if you are lucky, a holey stone will find you.”
Lauren Bacall really did take a boat ride up the Crane in 1985. She had heard that in 1951 ‘pickup’ stock shots had been filmed on the river for “The African Queen” which starred her former husband Humphrey Bogart. Unfortunately Miss Bacall was mistaken. Stock shots for the film were shot in these parts but on the Duke of Northumberland’s River.
– from Martyn Day
Credit: Carys Thomson - University of Birmingham for advice on helicoidal erosion.