The Soulbury Stone: ancient tradition meets four-wheel drive

The British are proud of their traditions, even when they haven’t a clue where they came from or what (if anything) they commemorate. It’s one of the things I love about the country—that mix of deep history and complete insanity. For today’s example, students, turn your textbook to page—. Sorry, I’m dating myself. Click your magic tablets to (and you can take your pick here): the Guardian, the BBC, or the Leighton Buzzard Observer, which doesn’t necessarily have the best article but does have the best name. Don’t you wish you wrote for the Leighton Buzzard?

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

It seems that at some dim point in history, the village of Soulbury built its main road around a stone. A big ol’ stone—the kind of stone that defeated two tanks during World War II, when someone decided that the only way to beat Hitler was to get that stone out of the middle of the road. Hitler did eventually lose the war, but the tanks lost the battle. Local wisdom says that the Soulbury Stone always wins.

But let me backtrack. When I said they build the road around it, I don’t mean that they detoured around it. I mean that the thing’s sticking up right in the middle of the road. Judging from the photos, it’s the height of an average person’s thigh. You’ll notice I avoided saying where it would come up to on the imaginary person’s thigh. A thigh’s a longish bit of anatomy. So this is a rough estimate but close enough to let you understand that the stone’s not the sort of thing your average village leaves in the middle of the road. Or that your average driver looks at and thinks, I don’t need to detour around that.

At one point, a lamppost stood beside it, but that’s gone now—maybe the tanks got it—so it’s just the stone these days, sticking out of the pavement all on its own.

I should stop here and tell you a bit about Soulbury. The population, according to Wikipedia, is 736. In 1891, it was 510, so yes, it’s been growing madly. Most references to it are on genealogical sites and its main claim to fame seems to be the stone. Once I ran through nine or ten entries about either the stone or somebody else’s ancestors, I was suddenly looking at listings about Sri Lanka and Tamil separatism. I should probably have followed the links to see if there really was some connection but I preferred to think it was a random collision of electronic bitzies.

Don’t you just love Google?

What brought the stone to national attention was an incident—or an alleged incident—involving a four-by-four and the Immovable Object, after which the county council decided the stone was an obstruction and needed to be removed.

Mind you, they weren’t going to crush it to smithereens. They understand the power of village tradition. All they were proposing was to move it to the village green. To which the village said, reasonably enough, “Obstruction? Whaddaya mean obstruction?”

Sorry, wrong accent. I can’t  help myself.

One resident threatened to chain himself to it, although it you look at the pictures you’ll be hard pressed to figure out how. My friends, I’ve done civil disobedience. Never in that particular form, but I think I’m safe in saying that a roundish stone isn’t something you can chain yourself to.

A move is afoot to have it declared an ancient monument, not because anybody’s Neolithic ancestor erected it—it was left there by a glacier— but because it would protect the stone. And, well, just because, as the kids used to say where I grew up when they had to explain something that couldn’t be explained, which usually meant some rule that originated with the grownups.

According the the Guardian article, “Even local people can’t quite put a finger on why they value [the stone] so highly. Debbie Olié, who lives at the bottom of Chapel Hill, appreciates that it’s a handy way to direct people looking for her turnoff. Jacqui Butler, who lives in the large, early-18th century house in front of the stone, says her teenage son likes to stand on it every Thursday evening waiting for the fish and chip van. Janet Joosten, who lives a few doors along the main road and is a member of a druid society, believes the stone has ‘particular energies’.

“Some people think it was a mounting block for horses. There is a legend that Oliver Cromwell stood on top of it while his troops were ransacking the village church (though villagers are happy to admit the sourcing on that may be sketchy). Some cite a legend that the stone rolls down the low hill every night at midnight only to reappear each morning, though sceptics scoff at such superstition and say it only happens every Halloween.”


Local belief also holds that only an eighth of the stone is visible aboveground. If that’s true (and how would anyone know?), it would explain why no one moved it a few hundred, or thousand, years ago, before anyone got sentimental about the thing.

In the name of safety, the stone is now surrounded by orange traffic cones. Last I heard, the fight was still going on.

And people thought I was making things up on April Fool’s Day. With a country like this, who needs April Fool’s Day?

49 thoughts on “The Soulbury Stone: ancient tradition meets four-wheel drive

  1. one wonders why they didn’t move it when they first built the road…or build the road a couple of meters over :-/

    it is a much nicer side to the UK than a lot of the current news…thank you :-)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. For an American, it represents all the things I love most about the UK. I once asked a friend why the statues that were defaced in Durham Cathedral (during the 17th century Civil War) were never restored. She was shocked. “It’s all our history, the good and bad. We have to own all of it.” Apparently, they have to own a boulder in the middle of their main road too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hiya, apologies if you have received my comments twice. It feels like Friday the 13th over here in the Garden of England. Ok…Thanks for the history lesson on the Soulbury Stone. I have to admit, you lost me at ‘hello’-or rather the first sentence of your blog post. In my opinion, most British people are acutely aware of their history and traditions-as well as the origins of them. As well they should be. Can Americans say the same? I don’t believe so, and I am American. Also, you mentioned that British history is a mix of deep history and complete insanity. Ouch. Careful now. I do understand that this is a blog post-it is not a thesis. There is nothing to prove or disprove. This format allows you, me and other bloggers to: just write. And we do. Its just that when someone reads something like what you’ve written, they may actually believe it to be true. Let’s face it, we tend to believe what we read. And people might think that British people don’t know ‘Jack’ about their history or tradition. But they do. And that friend, is the gospel truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The meaning is right there in the name. Buried souls of course. Special energies indeed.
    Poor engineering. Roads can be built around things. Even small children playing trains know that.
    I’m off to see how many people wreck into it…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. When I saw “Obstruction? Whaddaya mean obstruction?” I thought “you can take the girl out of Brooklyn, but…”

    Great story on the stone. I can’t wait to see how it turns out If only 1/8 is above ground, I guess the first order of business will be to decide what portion constitutes “the stone”. That should take 30-50 years. But, I am captivated by the thought of “fish and chips vans” – Seriously, are these a thing? We have ice cream vans (well, trucks) but nothing like fish and chips. That would be so cool. I would stand outside and wait for a fish and chips van. I might not stand on a rock in the middle of the road, but I’d make sure he didn’t drive by without my getting a serving. I love fish and chips.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fish and chips vans are entirely real. One comes around our village on–I think it’s Wednesdays. It makes two or three stops, since the village is seriously spread out, and people always turn out. I bought a veggie burger there once and I have to say, it was awful, but that’s what you get for ordering a veggie burger from a fish and chips van.

      In the summer, a pizza truck sets up a wood-fired oven, but that’s deeply non-traditional.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I wouldn’t mind a taco truck, but you can’t have everything, can you? They come out to the villages because it’s so spread out here that there’s no central place–or, well, there is but it’s far enough away that no one would go there. So people schedule their week around the fish and chip van’s visit.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I’d not heard of the Soulbury Stone before, but it doesn’t surprise me. How completely and absolutely barking to have it in the middle of a road. I can understand not moving it (particularly if most of it is under the ground, though how they’d know is anyone’s guess…. sonic imaging, perhaps?) but yes, how stupid not to make the road go by it – or somewhere else entirely. And cones? Mad!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I can’t figure out where the comment went, but somebody commented that the road would originally have been a footpath, and by the time it was widened there may not have been a lot of other places they could put the road. But yes, it’s all completely nuts, and I love it.


    • I’m sure you’ll be welcome as long as you understand that the real religion in Britain isn’t the Church of England, it’s standing in line–something that in the U.S. we just don’t get. So if he gets there first, he gets the stone and you have to wait till he’s served. After that, it’s yours.


  7. I told my husband about this and he said, “Like the sword in the stone, only this is the stone in the road!” Maybe the locals can make up a “Knights of the Stone” club to protect it from relocation.

    Liked by 1 person

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