It’s been two years en route from Gwynedd to Hampshire – not bad going, perhaps, for a chunk of granite the size of a Bentley. We finally planted it last week; a stone that had been straddling a stream in Snowdonia for who knows how many centuries. It was a tricky and slippery bridge to cross, and finally collapsed into the water. The footpath demanded better. So we built a simple plank bridge (ceremonially opened and christened Pont Cleo by our granddaughter Cleo) and set about giving the very considerable stone a new role.
I have a thing about monoliths (not the only indication, friends say, that I inhabit the Stone Age). Years ago we brought a rather beautiful pillar of granite from Wales to dignify the garden at Saling Hall. This was a tougher proposition. Luckily Wyn Owen, our farmer neighbour in the sheep-strewn hills, is an earth-mover, in many senses . He bought his biggest tractor to bear, a monster weighing 14 tons with the name of Komatsu. To reach the bridge in the forest meant dispatching several dozen (out of thousands) of Sitka spruce. The way cleared. Wyn somehow plucked the stone from the churning waters, landed it like a colossal fish and dragged it, like Samson in chains, half a mile through the forest, sliding on the mud (the rain that February day never let up for an instant). Wyn lifted it on to a trailer at the roadside. “Blimey”, he said in Welsh, “that’s way over three tons”.
Wyn’s son Gareth, equally adept with powerful engines, volunteered to tow it down to the New Forest behind his Land Rover. All went well until he came to the Dinas pass that leads from the coastal valley to the interior. A steep climb. It was slow tugging, until near the top the engine died. Was that expression the Welsh for a blown gasket? Another Land Rover was needed for a retreat back to the farm.
There was stalemate then, as coronavirus started directing our movements. Our mighty brown rock slept on its trailer for almost a year, shining in the rain. Last winter Gareth found a friend with a lorry to bring the stone south to the New Forest. A borrowed forklift laid it gently by the drive under tall oaks whose bark bore it a clear resemblance.
Another year passed while we made a planting plan. It will be a sundial, we decided; or rather a gnomon. Its one straightish and sharpish edge will point due south. In the morning the east side will be (with luck) sunlit, and in the afternoon the west. So we will know when it’s lunchtime. The last stage, last week, was to dig a deep hole, measure the thick end of the stone for a bespoke concrete bed, and use a lorry-borne crane to pick it up, dangle it heavy-end down over its slot and gingerly lower it in. “4.6 tons”, said the crane driver. It all went to plan, and now it stands in its clearing among the oaks, bearing a faint resemblance to Gibraltar and telling the approximate time. It is tempting to carve an inscription: ‘I am a sundial, and I make a botch of what is done far better by a watch’.