A hagstone is a stone with a naturally formed hole. Traditionally, hagstones are flint, the most abundant pebbles on our beaches in South-East England, typically grey or brown in colour and worn smooth and rounded by the action of the sea.

Hagstones on a Sussex beach

What is flint?

Flint is a microcrystalline sedimentary rock composed of silica, formed from the remains of sea sponges and planktonic organisms such as diatoms and radiolarians during the late cretaceous period (60-95 million years ago). Flint was formed in sediments that later became chalk, and so it is found in areas with chalk bedrock, such as the South Downs. As the chalk cliffs erode, the flint is exposed and deposited on the beach.

Flint deposits in chalk – they can often be seen in horizontal bands (Image: The Coastal Path)

How do holes form?

To be considered a hagstone, the hole should have been made naturally. Holes are often made by the wearing away of softer inclusions, for example a fossil sponge embedded in the silica. Sometimes minerals are deposited in small pockets within a rock as it forms. Later these small deposits may weather and erode more quickly than the surrounding rock. The hole may be very small to be begin with, even just a dent, but can be made larger by the action of smaller stones grinding against them through wave action

Hagstone in the making – with fossilised remains

Softer rocks such as limestone or sandstone may have holes made by the activities of marine animals such as burrowing bivalves, marine worms or sponges. These might not have been thought of as hagstones.

Hagstones in folklore

Stones with natural holes play a large role in European folklore. They are are also known as witch stones, adder stones, druid stones, fairy stones or dobbie stones. They were believed to have magical properties, protecting the bearer from witches and ne’er-do-wells.

One belief was that only good luck can pass through the hole, whereas bad luck and curses became ‘stuck’. It was also commonly thought that magic could not work on objects that water can pass through. As the stone’s shape resembles an eye, it acted as a talisman to ward off ‘the evil eye’ (a prominent tradition in Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asian culture). The hole in a hagstone was even thought be a portal to the faerie world and could bring good luck to anyone able to make contact.

Traditionally, hagstones were placed on windowsills or above doors to bring good luck or to ward off evil. They were hung with a red ribbon above the bed or nailed to the bedpost to protect against nightmares. Across Britain, they were hung above stables, sometimes tied to a piece of iron (which also repels witches) to stop witches riding the horses during the night or above cattle sheds, to stop witches turning the milk sour.

In Dorset, fishermen used a hagstone as a protective amulet, threaded onto the rope used to haul the boat up the beach: the boat was thought to be witched if it did not bring in a good haul. In sailing ships, hagstones tied to the mast or a line of stones tied together with string and nailed to the hull were used as protective talismans to ward off witches or to attract good sailing conditions at sea. This tradition was particularly prominent in the South-West. In Sussex there are records of stones with holes used by a midwife to cure children’s diseases and prevent adults catching them. Other uses included tying one to your keys to stop them getting lost, and worn as a pendant for personal protection.

Hagstones were often thought to have been formed by adders: traditionally, on the evening before May 1st, there was a gathering of snakes, which curled together in a ball with a hole in the middle, leaving their hardened saliva behind. In The Mabinogion (the earliest Welsh prose stories) such a stone helps Peredur to escape a lake monster and Owain to escape a castle by becoming invisible. Another theory is that the hole is caused by the bite of an adder: giving rise to the notion that the stones could protect against snake bites.

Local stories

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave… (Image: Hastings in Focus)

Hastings is supposedly under an enchantment known as Crowley’s Curse, put on the town by author and ceremonial magician, Aleister Crowley. It is said that anyone who has lived in Hastings is compelled to return, no matter how far away they move or for how long. The curse can only be broken by taking a hagstone from Hastings beach!

There is an interesting article in the journal Elementum, entitled In the Eye of the Hagstone, Under the Spell of Flint on the Sussex Coast, by Alex Woodcock. You can read it here.

Whatever you believe, perhaps there is still magic in a mindful walk along the beach, whether we are removing plastic pollution from the environment, looking out for special treasures, or just enjoying the sea air.     

We must add a disclaimer here: under the Coastal Protection Act 1949, the removal of any natural material, such as sand and pebbles from beaches in the UK is illegal.