My younger sister is devilishly cunning, and has come up with a way to keep my three-year-old nephew happy during long country walks. She has explained to him that sometimes teddy bears have picnics on footpaths, and that if you’re very lucky you can find chocolate coins that the teddies left behind…
I think my nephew only half believes the story about the teddy picnics, but since the chocolate coins he finds along the route are very real, he doesn’t really care.
Recently I went on holiday in Cornwall with my sister, her husband and my nephews. It was beautifully sunny, so we did a lot of hiking around, hunting for chocolate coins and pretending to be trains from Thomas the Tank Engine (don’t ask).
When we reached the ancient stones of Men-an-Tol, my nephew quickly realised that this was a ‘teddy picnic site’. He pounced on a gleaming chocolate coin, then wriggled through the hole in the centre of the main stone, just for good measure.
Although he didn’t know it, he was acting out a much older story. Long ago, it was believed that the stone with the hole had sacred, healing powers. A child suffering from the horrible bone disease known as rickets was sometimes passed through the hole, in the hope of a cure. Another old story tells of a mother whose child had been stolen and replaced by a fairy changeling. Desperate, she passed the fake child through the hole… and her own child was safely returned to her.
So what happens if a real, healthy child passes through the hole instead? Would he or she be replaced by a changeling? Who knows? (I’m keeping an eye on my nephew just in case!)
On our walks we came across other ancient stones, each with their own stories and legends. There’s the Boskednan Stone Circle, otherwise known as the Nine Maidens. (We counted twelve of them, but never mind.) According to one tale, these are young women who were turned to stone as punishment for dancing on the Sabbath.
Something about these ancient stones stirs up our imaginations, and forms stories in our minds. For hundreds or even thousands of years people have been looking at them, and instead of seeing hunks of rock, they have seen magical healing machines, terrible omens of the apocalypse, or young girls trapped forever for one mistake.
We may not really believe these stories, but the stones are still a tantalising mystery, nestling amid the everyday like a chocolate coin on an ordinary stile.