24 July 2010

Thomas Hughes and Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire, and the Blowing Stone

The pub The Blowing Stone, with its inn sign of a stone with several holes set against a background of the famous white horse, obviously hides a story or two.

L. V. Grinsell's leaflet The Blowing Stone attempts to unravel some of this mystery, and he is of course right to virtually dismiss the myth that it was used by Alfred the Great to summon his men to fight the Danes: the sound made through blowing into it was thought to be heard for many miles around.

Nevertheless, the blowing stone has acquired a piece of immortality for itself. It once stood in front of a different pub called The Blowing Stone, toward the bottom of Blowingstone Hill, and this lump of sarsen stone is mentioned in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays:

'At the bottom [of the hill] there is a pleasant public [house], whereat we must really take a modest quencher, for the down here is a provocative of thirst. So we pull up under an old oak which stands before the door.

"What is the name of your hill, landlord?"

"Blawing Stwun Hill, sir, to be sure."

"And of your house? I can't make out the sign."

"Blawing Stwun, sir," says the landlord, pouring out his old ale from a Toby-Philpot jug, with a melodious crash, into the long-necked glass.

"What queer names!" say we, sighing at the end of our draught, and holding out the glass to be replenished.

"Be'an't queer at all, as I can see, sir," says mine host, handing back our glass, "seeing as this here is the Blawing Stwun his self," putting his hand on a square lump of stone some three feet and a half high, perforated with two or three queer holes, like petrified antediluvian rat-holes, which lies there close under the oak, under our very nose. We are more than ever puzzled, and drink our second glass of ale wondering what will come next. "Like to hear un, sir?" says mine host, setting down Toby Philpot on the tray, and resting both hands on the "Stwun." We are ready for anything; and he, without waiting for a reply, applies his mouth to one of the rat-holes. Something must come of it, if he doesn't burst. Good heavens! I hope he has no apoplectic tendencies. Yes, here it comes, sure enough, a grewsome sound between a moan and a roar, and spreads itself away over the valley, and up the hillside, and into the woods at the back of the house - a ghost-like, awful voice. "Um do say, sir," says mine host rising purple-faced, while the moan is still coming out of the "Stwun," "as they used in old times to warn the country-side, by blawing the stwun when the enemy was acomin' - and as how folks could make un heered them for seven mile round; leastways, so I've heered Lawyer Smith say, and he knows a smart sight about them old times." We can hardly swallow Lawyer Smith's seven miles; but could the blowing of the stone have been a summons, a sort of sending the fiery cross round the neighbourhood in the old times? What old times? Who knows? We pay for our beer, and are thankful.

"And what's the name of the village just below, landlord?"

"Kingstone Lisle*, sir."'

The village (without an 'e') is about a half mile from the stone, which seems to attract a number of people: when I visited earlier today, there was a party of schoolchildren there, one of whom tried blowing into the stone and only succeeded in what his guardian called 'making rude noises'. Grinsell explains that to make a successful noise, all that need be done is to cover the hole entirely with the mouth and simply blow.

I didn't bother trying.

Kingston Lisle is also the name of the house Hughes built in his experimental school project in Rugby, eastern Tennessee, more of which I shall mention when I go there next month.
 This fascinating photo shows the blowing stone in about 1910, and was sent to me yesterday by George Zepp, of Rugby, Tennessee. Many thanks, George!

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