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Page last updated at 12:31 GMT, Monday, 22 May 2006 13:31 UK

London's heart of stone

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

The London Stone housed behind a grille
The London Stone, rather upstaged by some 20th Century sports logos

The mysterious "London stone" is going to be rescued from a building due to be demolished. Does it mean that London is going to be saved from an ancient legend?

You couldn't get much less of a romantic setting for an historic monument. It's in a kerbside cage, stuck on the wall of a sports shop in Cannon Street due for demolition.

The only clouds of mystery billowing around it are the car exhaust fumes from the traffic crawling through the City of London.

But this is the neglected setting of the London Stone - an ancient and mysterious object mentioned by Shakespeare, William Blake and Dickens, which has been seen as one of the capital's greatest relics since at least the Middle Ages and probably much earlier.

Now there are plans for the limestone block to be put into the Museum of London for safekeeping, while the building to which it's gloomily attached is pulled down and the site is redeveloped.

Protecting the stone might not be such a bad idea - since there is a legend that, like the ravens at the Tower of London, the fortune of the city is tied to the survival of the stone.

"So long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish," says the proverb.

Moved to museum

This relates to the myth that the stone was part of an altar built by Brutus the Trojan, the legendary founder of London. This might be unlikely, but then again no one really knows its origin.

Chris Cheek
The man who saved London: Chris Cheek protected the stone from builders

Hedley Swain, archaeologist at the Museum of London, says it is clearly an ancient block - but despite the many legends, there is no way of confirming its date or purpose.

A more pressing concern is how to rescue the stone from its current position, in a building that is set to be pulled down.

"The trouble is that at the moment it's not really looked after by anyone," he says. And although there is no fixed timetable, he is expecting the stone to be brought to the Museum of London for display while the new building is constructed.

"People go to look for it, thinking it's going to be a grand object, and then they walk up and down Cannon Street and can't find it."

"We get letters from people saying that it's appalling that it's being kept in this way."

But he says there is no way of confirming rival theories that it was a Roman distance marker or part of a prehistoric standing stone or any of the many more exotic myths.

The area between Cannon Street and the River Thames was a site of important Roman buildings - and he says that the stone could have been from these buildings.

But it could also have been much older and part of some other pre-Roman edifice.

Guarding the stone

It's not entirely the case that no one is looking after the stone, because it does have a current custodian: Chris Cheek, the manager of the Sportec sports shop to which the stone is attached.

London Stone
The London stone, as seen from inside the sports shop

And even though he isn't a household name, Londoners might not realise that he has already saved their city from the destruction promised if the stone is lost.

"When we were setting up the shop, there were cowboy builders here, and one of them was just about to take a chisel to the stone. I told him 'Whoah. Stop right there.'"

And Mr Cheek has become attached to this strange situation, where one of the city's most ancient objects is parked in his shop, surrounded by football shirts, cricket bats and trainers.

In fact, while people try to see it from outside, the only decent view of the stone is from the cricket section in his shop.

Does he believe in the legend that London's future well-being depends on this stone?

"Yes. I do really. I'm not into hocus pocus, but there is something about this stone. For some reason it's been kept, there's something special about it."

Sacred stones

This could be because of its associations with druids, he suggests, or maybe just the sheer weight of history - from the Roman legionnaires through to the Blitz.

1791 print of the London stone
How the London stone was protected in the 18th Century

He also says it reveals something about people's characters.

"There are people who have travelled all the way from Australia to see this stone. And there are other people who are so hectic, so busy with their appointments, that they walk past it every day of week and never even see it."

"And there are people who come in for a pair of socks and then suddenly see it. 'Is that the London stone? I've heard of that'."

Mr Cheek also enjoys the idea that, until it's shifted to a museum, he is the latest in a long line of people to be in charge of something so mysterious and ancient.

The idea of sacred stones is a very ancient tradition - monarchs are still crowned on the Stone of Scone, the so-called "stone of destiny", in Westminster Abbey.

And the London stone has been the source of speculation right through the capital's history.

Magic powers

Queen Elizabeth I's adviser and occultist, John Dee, was obsessed by the stone, believing that it had magic powers.

London stone
The stone was built into the wall of a church, later destroyed in the Blitz

Shakespeare depicted the 15th Century peasants' rebellion leader, Jack Cade, striking the London stone as a symbolic sign of taking control of the city.

And Mr Cheek can point out the grooves in the top of the stone, furrowed, he believes, by repeated sword blows.

Christopher Wren saw the foundations of the stone being excavated - and believed it to be part of a bigger Roman structure.

William Blake used the story that the stone had been part of a druid altar - reflecting another belief that it was from a pre-Roman religious stone circle on the site now occupied by St Paul's Cathedral.

The persistent story that the stone was the symbolic centre point from which every distance in Roman Britain was measured was already in circulation in the 16th Century.

Stone survivor

But maybe the London stone's most remarkable achievement is to have survived at all - through wars, plagues, fires and even 1960s planning, right in the middle of the financial district of the capital.

Cannon Street
The building housing the London stone is due for redevelopment

It's probably still in a setting not too far from where it stood when the Romans were building London.

In 18th Century prints it was kept in an elegant stone casing - and there are photographs of Victorian police men guarding the stone, when it was set into the wall of a church at waist height.

This church, St Swithin, was damaged during a bombing raid during World War II - and the stone was then attached to a new building on the site.

This current building is set to be pulled down - and the Corporation of London is ensuring that the replacement will be put the chunk of limestone on display in a way that is more prominent.

Archaeologist Hedley Swain says the stone also serves as a reminder that "under the superficial veneer of being a modern business capital, London has so many deep layers of accumulated history".

Mr Cheek says that the real appeal is its mystery. "If it doesn't have a beginning, then perhaps it doesn't have an end either."


Below is a selection of your comments.

The stone is a listed structure, part of our visible Roman history and an important part of the street scene. Although I have not taken to hitting the stone with a sword like my predecessors, I recognise that the London Stone is an intriguing part of the history of the unique City. As guardians of the past and future of the Square Mile, the City of London aims to ensure the stone -and any mythical powers it may have - remains intact.
Lord Mayor of London, David Brewer

A great tale and many thanks to Chris Cheek for looking after the stone. Now, let's make sure it is kept close to ordinary Londoners, not lost in the storerooms of a museum.
John Brook, Windsor

I have seen it many times. It has to be preserved and returned to its current spot. It will keep London safe
John P Most, Cambridge

Look what happened when Carlisle moved its stone. Better leave it where it is I think.
Abbie, London

I'm from London and I never even knew it existed! What a fascinating story. Mr Cheek is a hero and should get an OBE in my opinion.
Debbie Seymour, Connecticut, USA

Something as ancient as the London Stone deserves to not be removed to a museum. Besides, if the proverb is correct, bad things could happen. Three cheers to Mr Cheek for keeping it safe!
Brendan, Tucson, US

The stone has always lived in the heart of London, perhaps it is the heart of London, nothing can survive without its heart.
Ylva, Gravesend

Very interesting story. I think it should definitely be returned to its location once the new building on the site has been constructed. Also think the idea of having it on a plinth would be quite nice. Having these little artefacts tucked away in London streets is one of the things that makes our city so interesting.
Robin, London

Chris Cheek deserves a medal! Or what about a new award - 'Defender of the Stone' - to ensure it's kept safe in future centuries - because there are a heck of a lot of dodgy builders about - with chisels at the ready!
Simon Morrison, Truro

Leave that stone right where it is... terrible things will happen if we move it.. like beer going flat or losing the World Cup... Hang on... WHO MOVED THAT STONE?
JPS, Germany

Being originally from London I loved the story. I never realised the stone was there and will definitely find it when I'm next down. As for the Stone of Scone, I heard recently that the stone currently at Edinburgh is a fake and that the original is believed to be buried somewhere in the Scotish countryside. Is this a widely held belief, and does anyone have any details?
Maria, Isle of Skye

What a curious curiosity. Personally I agree with those people who think it should stay close to its current location. I think it's a wonderfully quirky, British thing to have a 'lost' artefact like this residing peacefully somewhere in the heart of the capital.
Lee, Grantham

The stone must stay close to where is is now ... I don't think we should risk the wrath of Gog and Magog!
Ian Waite, London

Just to clarify, the Stone will only come to the Museum of London temporarily while the site is being redeveloped, it will then be put back on display in Cannon Street.
Hedley Swain (Museum of London), London

I'd walked past the London Stone every day on my way home, via Cannon Street and didn't have a clue it was there. Then one day I decided to go for a walk at lunch-time and spotted it. The associated plaque doesn't give you much information, so I found this article fascinating - having heard of the name, I now understand a little more behind it.
GDW, London

The ravens are currently locked in the tower to stop them getting birdflu and the legend is coming true. Not sure a stone in the middle of a locked room of ravens is a good idea to preserve it. They might use it for target practice.
Suzie, Milton Keynes

What about the Trafalgar Square plinth ?
Clare, London

Sad will be the day when everything that is ancient and woven with stories is confined to a museum. As a young man I went looking for this stone and eventually found it tucked away in the shop. That thrill then was worth far more than wandering past it in some museum in the 'ancient lumps of rock' section.
Lon Barfield, Bristol

Having read about this mysterious stone I made every effort to look for it during my stay last April, and I was thrilled to see it. Being a City stone, I think it should remain nearest to the place where it was found originally.
Gisela Whelan, Essen, Germany

I'm glad there's still some magic and mystery left in this country. We need more of it!
Adam, Cardiff

The British Museum is too stuffy to keep it. This is supposed to be a living momument, not a relic, and it belongs in the City of London. Besides, the cricket section of a sports shop is a far more suitable place to keep it.
Julian, London

I wonder how many of these ancient monuments sit in our busy streets unnoticed. In Kingston there is a coronation stone in a shady patch of grass beside the guildhall on which were crowned seven Saxon kings of England. I have never seen anyone near it and the only sign post to it is a small brown sign above a bus stop. I just love that. There is so much history in London surrounding us everywhere we simply take it as read.
David, Kingston upon Thames

I look at the stone every time I go past Cannon St. I cannot understand why it is not in the British or the Museum of London. It must be one of the oldest monuments in London, yet no one seems to go and see it. I hope it rests in peace in its new home (in the Museum of London please!)
Louise, London

What irony. The London Stone is an old old reminder in the heart of the Saxon capital, that the great city of London used to be a Welsh / British stronghold. Brutus is seen by many as the founder of the Welsh nation, our very own Hengist and Horsa.
Osian Jones, Aberystwyth.

An interesting story and no conclusion! What is it? Where is it from? I won't sleep now....
Neil Hopkins, Haywards Heath

The stone of London is a wonderful story, and the reaction to it is also wonderful. Think of a stone of New York and have a laugh. The Indians having been obliterated it would have to have been put there by the Dutch maybe three hundred years ago? The approach of Americans to this limited history is instructive. A stone? Britons seem to respect not only the age of the stone but also its mystery and the myth that surrounds it.
Christopher Hobe Morrison, Middletown, NY, USA

I don't think it should be put in a museum, it should stay where it is, if this is where it was originally placed (it may not like being moved!).
Ruth, Isle of Wight

I would not put the Stone in a museum, it has spent centuries on the roadside, surviving time, history, traffic and the blitz. It would be nice to move the stone away temporarily just to put it back on its place in a display incorporated in the new building, like it was done after WWII.
Andrea , Milano, Italia

I had never heard of the London stone but I now need to know more! Why move it? If it has stood on the same spot for so many years why lock it up in a museum? I should like to make a trip to see in situ.
Owen Wyn-Jones, Ironbridge, Shropshire

Rather than stuck inside or in-the side-of a building, London should build a pedestal nearby with a plaque describing the history of the stone. That way both Londoners and visitors can admire and reflect on the history that surrounds them.
Clark Glenn Jr., Lawrenceville, NJ, USA

Perhaps when they excavate to rebuild the significance of its position may become apparent
Stephen Belcher, Ryde, Isle of Wight

I think it is very important that the London stone should return to a safe and properly visible home on Cannon Street once the building works are finished. It must not be allowed to disappear into storage, or be put on display in a place which has to be specially visited, instead of simply being passed by thousands daily.
Isobel, Salisbury

This story reminds me of a children's TV programme where they move a sacred artefact and the world went a bit mad until it was returned...spooky!
Dennis, Pembrokeshire

The Museum of London is a great place to visit and would do the stone justice. At the moment not many visit because they don't know.
Nancy, London

If they have similar legends attached to them, why can't the ravens in the Tower look after the stone?
Myf, Berks

Can we have our Stone of Scone back please?
Anon, Edinburgh

You have - it is in Edinburgh Castle
John Thurm, Manchester

No it's not - that's a fake. I've got it.
Pete, Fife

While we are at it, can we have our Koh-i-noor (the diamond on the queen's crown) back please?
The last prince, India

Can we have our marbles back?
Zorba, Greece

Until you give us 12 points at eurovision you will never get your marbles back...so there!
Anon, London

Can we have our shipyards back?
Paddy, Liverpool

Oh and can we also have our capital city status back please?
Mabon Dane, Camulodunum (Colchester)



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