A cult book & film, a strange stone & a 90-year-old research paper
ALMOST fifty years since its first screening the influence of the film The Wicker Man continues to be felt.
The reach of the 1973 British Lion Films production (Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay of David Pinner’s novel Ritual) – let’s disregard a wretched Hollywood version – can be seen, I suggest, in contemporary folk horror by writers such as Zoe Gilbert and Carly Holmes. Contributing writer to Horla, Sally Spedding, singled out the film for its impact in a recent interview.
The film’s terrifying climax, of course, is the realisation by Edward Woodward’s police sergeant of his intended immolation by the inhabitants of a Scottish island – this to take place in a giant cage-like structure: the wicker man.
The astonishing ending – one that surely haunts (for some significant while after) all who see it – seems too fantastical for words. In fact, as I’ve learned, it may actually be really rather credible.
During a recent stay in that intriguing and special borderland where Wales and England meet, I found myself reading a 90-year-old research paper in the ‘transactions’ of a local natural history society.
To my surprise, its thrust was this: that wicker man-style burnings had indeed happened in the British Isles (albeit not in the 1970s).
My greatest surprise came on viewing a photograph showing ‘victims’ in such a ‘cage’ in the 1930s, albeit – happily – for the purposes of a flame-less demonstration. More on this later.
Although I grew up in the border country known as the Marches, I had never heard of – let alone seen (possibly because of its position on private property) – the Queen Stone, a seemingly Bronze Age menhir that stands on farmland in a loop of the River Wye near Ross-on-Wye in South Herefordshire.
The sandstone boulder stands about seven ft six ins tall, with a portion of similar scale buried underground, and is about five ft four ins wide. It’s believed by some to date from the same period as Stonehenge.
On a break from writing and editing, I found myself whiling away an afternoon fingering through the ‘Local Interest’ section of the library of an old Marches wool town.
Encountering references to the stone in various books (with dark suggestions as to its purpose), I resolved to go back to their common source.
And so I found myself opening a volume from the 1920s of the ‘transactions’ (the word refers to scholarly papers, records, activities, etc) of Herefordshire’s Woolhope Club (a field society dating from the 1850s which – like similar societies in other shires – drew together (and still does) historians, naturalists, archaeologists and those generally seeking education and enlightenment).
Within the pages of a volume dated 1926-1928, I found an account of the ‘extraordinary monolith’ as given in December 1926 by Alfred Watkins, a polymath and resident of the cathedral city of Hereford, perhaps best remembered now for his advocacy of ley lines: his belief that old trackways were aligned with important ancient sites.
Watkins’ account of the stone is a compelling mix of scholarship, on-the-ground sleuthing and muddy boots archaeology, as shown by the likes of his following commentary:
‘The Queen Stone is said by two old inhabitants to have been called the Quin Stone, and is so named in Manor Rolls. In Dexter’s CornishNames, it is shown that quin is a corruption of gwyn, which is Celtic for white… In September, 1926, having received a kindly consent from the owner, Major C.J. Vaughan… I commenced digging.’
Watkins reports that his excavations made clear that the stone had been placed at its location in the field intentionally – in a hole dug for it.
Importantly, his paper makes plain: ‘Its peculiarity lies in the deep grooves which run from about present ground level (but not below) up to and over the top, these on all four sides…
‘They make a clean finish at ground level, not dying out gradually as tool-sharpening grooves would do, and their length, longer than the sweep of a man’s arm, makes this origin impossible. A natural origin by dripping of water is also impossible, as the grooves are on all sides.’
Meanwhile, around the stone, excavators found flint, coal and small pieces of bone, as well as many pieces of black burnt wood: one option in Watkins’ mind being that fires had been lit on the spot.
Watkins, who seems to have been very well respected by his peers and who was among other things a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society (he invented an exposure meter), states his conviction as to the stone’s purpose in the striking final passages of his paper.
‘Julius Caesar in his “War in Gaul”, speaking of the practices of the Druids there (mentioned to have been “devised in Britain”), says – I quote from the “Everyman” translation: “Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames.”‘
Watkins continues: ‘Now in the early stage of making an osier cage, that is, a basket, a wall of sticks standing up in the air is what is first seen.
‘In my mind’s eye I see early man bringing up osier rods, fixing them one each in the grooves all round the stone, binding all round with withies, much as country folk twist a bind round a faggot, and there in the air stands on a sacrificial stone the beginnings of just such a cage as Caesar described.
‘The evidence of fire corrosion on the top of the stone seems to me to be strong evidence that fires were lit here; and the fragments of calcified bone, though we do not know to what animal it belonged, might be still more significant.’
In 1933 Watkins gave a talk on the subject to 500 members of the Woodcraft Folk movement at the Queen Stone.
As part of this, a cage was built on top of the stone, in which two ‘victims’ were – temporarily – held.
A photograph of this – which I have seen but do not reproduce here for reasons of copyright – can be found in Alfred Watkins’ Herefordshire in his own words and photographs by Ron Shoesmith, a one-time City of Hereford archaeologist (Logaston Press, 2012).
Watkins died in 1935, having contributed a wealth of papers to the transactions of the Woolhope Club on everything from bees to the writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning. ‘His death causes a void in our ranks which will be felt for many years to come,’ says an obituary in the transactions.
British mystery and supernatural writer Phil Rickman, author of the Merrily Watkins series of novels, features the Queen Stone on the cover of his book Merrily’s Border, The Mysterious World of Merrily Watkins, History and Folklore, People & Places (published by Logaston in a new edition this year).
Rickman comments on the stone: ‘Yes, we’re talking about a wicker man… This one was certainly big enough for at least one human victim…’
He adds: ‘I’ve seen (it) from a distance… on a winter’s evening, just before nightfall, and I admit to experiencing a certain dark excitement…’; the latter sensation, he says, ‘enhanced by the barbed wire and keep-out signs.’
Rickman speculates that – given its aura (and possible past) – perhaps the landowner has secured it in a way that – ultimately – is for the good of would-be visitors.
By strange coincidence, I found myself re-reading on this visit to Herefordshire, the story ‘A View from a Hill’ by M.R. James, celebrated writer of Victorian ghost stories.
In some companion notes, James states that Herefordshire was the ‘imagined scene’ for that story – a supernatural tale about a relic-hunting antiquary who creates a pair of peculiarly insightful binoculars and also contributes to the transactions of a local society.
Did, I wonder, M.R. James and Alfred Watkins – almost exact contemporaries – ever meet?
James is on record as saying that he had Hereford Cathedral at least partly in mind when writing certain of his stories. Watkins lived in a house just off the cathedral close. That the two men may have encountered one another isn’t difficult to imagine.