I have a small obsession with hagstones. I take very little from our local beach, bar the rubbish we try to clean every time we visit, but these little stones with clear, round holes in them are one. They appeal to me on a very deep level, and I never even began to understand why until I read an article in Elementum Journal a few years ago.
We'd driven up to Bramber Castle to take the girls for a walk. But Iris was still young enough that even a 15 minute drive could be enough to whisk her away into the deep slumber of the very new. I volunteered to stay with her in the car while she slept, and occupied myself by reading one of the magazines that were still lurking in a bag on a seat in the car.
I'm so glad I did.
The lure of the adder stone
The article In The Eye of the Hagstone by Alex Woodcock caught my eye, and I ended up absolutely absorbed by it as my youngest slumbered, drawn in by the writing and the exquisite art. And I learned I was not alone, both in knowing little about them, but also in my obsession:
All of this lore was unknown to me when I started to pick up holed stones. I can’t remember now how it began or when, but wherever I’ve lived they’ve started to appear. Slowly at first, a single one here and there, before long piles of them on shelves, on windowsills, beneath the record player, sometimes en masse in cardboard boxes.
I'm glad for the sake of my marriage that my obsession hasn't grown to that level…
Woodcock, though, has moved on from filling his space with holey stones and has gone on to explore the lore behind them — and it's a more ancient idea than I expected:
Depending on which chalk region of the country you are in, a pebble with a natural hole in it is known as a hag stone, an adder stone, a ring stone or a witch stone. They tend to occur in flint, and as the names suggest there is a more than a passing association with the supernatural. Historically they were believed to repel witchcraft and any disease caused by spells or the evil eye. This may have developed from their use to protect against nightmares, an early record of which occurs in a fifteenth-century charm, although well into the twentieth century folklorists recorded them draped with a red cloth or tied with red ribbon and hung above beds for just this purpose.
I particularly like the name "adder stone", given the similarity to my long-time internet user name: adders. But hagstone just resonates more somehow. The intimation of mystery, of secret knowledge and of power seems to better encapsulate these beautiful gifts from the sea.
A gift for the mindful
I don't believe that these little chunks of rock have any real magical power in the sense of the old stories. Their magic lies somewhere else; in the reward of paying attention to the beach, and of finding one amongst the endless pebbles of the Sussex shores. Hagstones are granted to those who pay attention to the details of the shore, not just the broad vistas of the beach.
They emerge as an occasional reward for treating and retreading the shores of the place you live. You can't always guarantee that you'll find one — and the beach is littered with near hagstones — but when you do, you feel rewarded for your time in nature. You have noticed the beach, and the beach has noticed you.
And I need help with that focus. I've lived a very online life — and like many people in those sorts of jobs, I often find it stressful, and it leaves me with a deep desire to disconnect. But even when I've stepped away from the screen physically, it can be hard to get your brain to follow along, and sometimes I need a focus to help it.
I'm in that classic middle-aged man zone, where I'm struggling with my mood. One of the few reliable cures is to take a walk on the beach, and a mindful walk is even better. One route to that is photography, another a beach clean — but even a simple hunt for hagstones will do.
Maybe — just maybe — the hagstones find a new magic for each generation.
The article that started my journey is now available in full for you to enjoy online:
And I recommend Elementum Journal throughly. It's a lovely publication, full of slow considered writing and art, and which ends up being a beautiful object in its own right.