“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Blowing Stone

The Blowing Stone is a sarsen stone that resides outside Blowing Stone Cottages, at the base of Blowingstone Hill, just to the south of the B4507 near Kingston Lisle in Oxfordshire.

The sarsen is around 3ft tall and is perforated by a number of holes, which were possibly created by long vanished tree roots. It is said that one of the holes in the stone, if blown into in the correct manner, turns the stone into a form of trumpet and produces a loud booming sound that can be heard for several miles around. According to legend the Blowing Stone was originally located on Kingstone Down, a few miles to the south west of its present location, and it was here that King Alfred made use of the stone’s trumpet-like effect. King Alfred apparently used the Blowing Stone to rally his Saxon armies in preparation for his battle against the Vikings at the Battle of Ashdown. But like all good legends, it is highly unlikely to be true!

The Blowing Stone seems to have been first documented in 1761 and it is believed that the stone was brought down from the ridgeway in the mid-18th century by either a local blacksmith or a local landowning family, who placed the stone in its present position outside the cottages. In 1811 the Blowing Stone Cottages were in fact the Blowing Stone Inn, and the landlord of the time would apparently amuse his customers by making the stone bellow for a small fee. It seems that using the stone to generate an income may have continued for a good number of years. The “Getty Images” website hosts a picture of the stone dating from c1860-c1922 and claims to show an enterprising young boy on hand to charge tourists who try to blow the stone.

The Blowing Stone has also featured in fiction, being referred to in Thomas Hughes’ (1822 – 1896) novel “Tom Brown's Schooldays” which was published in 1857. In the novel the stone is referred to as the “Blawing Stwun”.

The idea of a Blowing Stone is not just limited to Oxfordshire. As the “Legendary Dartmoor” website suggests, Devon is also home to a tradition of a Blowing Stone. Unlike the Kingston Lisle sarsen, which was used as an instrument itself, the Devon Blowing Stone was instead used to amplify the sound of a trumpeter’s horn. The Devon Blowing Stone is described as a flat slab of granite with a concave hollow in it. The trumpeter was said to place the end of his horn into the hollow and then blow his trumpet. The Blowing Stone would then amplify the sound of the trumpet allowing it to be heard far and wide.

So if you are ever passing the Blowing Stone at Kingston Lisle why not stop and try blowing the stone? Legend does suggests that any person who is capable of making the Blowing Stone sound a note which can be heard atop of the nearby White Horse Hill at Uffington will be a future King of England. So it is worth an attempt, as long as you don’t mind pursing your lips against a dirty old piece of rock where countless other lips have been pursed before!

The Blowing Stone Cottages.

The Blowing Stone.

The new Blowing Stone Inn at nearby Kingston Lisle.

Kingston Lisle Church.

Pictures: Oxfordshire (June 2016).

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Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Headington Shark

I first saw the Headington Shark in March 1994 on the front cover of Fortean Times, and in June this year I finally got to see it in the flesh.

The Headington Shark “crash landed” head first in to the roof of 2 New High Street, Headington, Oxford early on the morning of Saturday 9th August 1986, 41 years to the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

The 299kg, 7.6m (25ft) long painted fibreglass shark was the brain child of the property owner Bill Heine and sculptor John Buckley. Known formally us “Untitled 1986”,  when Heine was asked what the purpose of the shark was, his reply was apparently: "The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation... It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki"

After its installation the shark became a local topic of controversy and a 6 year battle commenced between Heine and Oxford City Council, who wanted the shark removed. The Council first tried to have the shark removed on the grounds of health & safety. However, following an inspection, the structure was declared safe and secure. So the council pursued the line that the shark should be removed because planning permission had not been granted, and because of the precedent that it might set. If the shark was allowed to stay everyone might want one on their roof! Somewhat expectedly the council rejected Heine’s retrospective application for planning permission.

Undeterred, Heine and local residents battled to keep the shark and in 1992 the case was eventually escalated to central government. Peter Macdonald, a minister in the Department of the Environment, was asked to rule on the case. Heine's book "The Hunting of the Shark" outlines Macdonald's verdict:

"Into this archetypal urban setting crashes (almost literally) the Shark. The contrast between the object and its setting is quite deliberate. In this sense, the work is specific to its setting, and it would "read" quite differently in the context of, say, the foyer to an arts centre in Gloucester Green. 

It is (as the Council say) incongruous, and that incongruity is quite consciously sought by the artist. It is, indeed, out of harmony with its surrounds. It is that lack of harmony, that sense of being “out of place”, to which the Council objects, and which it equates with demonstrable harm to visual amenity. It is the very same feature which appeals to many of the Shark’s supporters, and which has made it an urban landmark… An “incongruous” object can become accepted as a landmark in some cases becoming well-known, even well-loved, in the process. Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the Shark.

There is a real sense in which permitting the Shark to remain is the “risky” option, the safe and easy thing to do being to remove it. However, I cannot believe that the purpose of planning control is to enforce a boring and mediocre uniformity to the built environment. Any system of control must make some small space for the dynamic, the unexpected and the downright quirky or we shall all be the poorer for it. I believe that this is one case where a little vision and imagination is appropriate, and I recommend that the Headington shark be allowed to remain."

So whilst the government is often accused of being bureaucratic, it seems that common sense and imagination can sometimes prevail!

The Headington Shark.

The cover of Fortean Times #73.

Pictures: Oxfordshire (June 2016).

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