Mike O’Leary – Storyteller

Mike OLMike is the author of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Folktales, Sussex Folktales, and Hampshire and Isle of Wight Ghost Tales.  He is a regular at the Sheepfair, however he dosn’t just read stories, he tells them. You might see him, dragging his blue story box around the village, playing music on his flute-stick, and looking to tell a story and cadge a drink. Mike loves the Sheepfair

Mike has his fourth book being published it is due out in September. It is a shame we are missing the publication as the final chapter is about the Overton Sheepfair. Mike has kindly adapted his last chapter in which Overton features, we have included it here. If you like the sound of it don’t forget to look out for Mike spinning a yarn or two.

THE OVERTON STONES

You may not know it, but there was once a stone circle at a place called Rotten Hill, near the village of Overton. Probably there were other stone circles all over Hampshire, but over the years farmers ploughed up the land, and people took the stones to build houses, barns and churches.

In neighbouring Wiltshire a lot of the stone circles survived; possibly because the local people were too lazy, drunk and feckless to put them to the good use that hard working Hampshire people did. Avebury and Stonehenge are famous, whilst others, like Marden, have lost their stones, but still have the embankments, and were once as spectacular as Avebury. The area in the middle of Wiltshire: Salisbury Plain, the Vale of Pewsey, and surrounding regions, must have once been the centre of a great culture, and many roads must have lead there.

Many of these roads crossed Hampshire, and one was The Old Way. This ancient track lead from the sea ports of Kent, and the city of Canterbury, all the way across the land to the port of Seaton, in Dorset. In medieval times the eastern part of the The Old Way became a pilgrimage route, called The Harrow Way, along which pilgrims walked and rode from Winchester to Canterbury.

The Old Way goes past Rotten Hill, near the village of Overton. Once upon a time (so the stories say) there was a stone circle on Rotten Hill. I want to tell you a story about this stone circle, but firstly I need to tell you about the Overton Sheep Fair. Overton was an important central place for Hampshire and the surrounding counties, and shepherds would bring their flocks there for sale. Drovers, men who take sheep or cattle over long distances, would bring flocks of sheep to Overton along The Old Way. The drovers were tough men; they had to cope with driving these flocks for hundreds of miles, protecting and caring for the flocks as they did so, sleeping out in the open in all weathers, and dealing with robbers and thieves. On occasion there were drovers who were not incapable of a bit of robbing and thieving themselves.

One such drover arrived in Overton, after droving a flock of sheep for a farmer in faraway eastern Sussex. The drover had originally come from Whitchurch, a nest of thieves and rogues not so far from Overton, but the innocent Sussex farmer trusted him, and never dreamed that the drover might never return – taking all the money that the sheep would fetch at market.

The sheep were auctioned, and the drover, with a purse full of money, fell into the appalling and licentious pubs of Overton; some of the worst dens of iniquity in Hampshire.

After several days drinking, and eating masses of pork scratchings, all the money was gone, and he staggered out of Overton and fell asleep upon a hill. The hill was Rotten Hill, and he was in the middle of the stone circle.

Now, the day was the 7th of July, and it was the day of the Feast of Thomas of Canterbury. In medieval times this was an important saints day, and thus important for The Old Way – which did, after all, lead to the holy city of Canterbury. The Overton Sheep Fair was always held round and about that date – perhaps it had always been a special date, even before the arrival of Christianity; some sort of a mid-summer festival. It was said that on that day the stones could talk.

It was a grating, grinding sound that awoke the drunken drover.

“How be you, Long Maggie?” said a stone.

“Oh, I spose I could be worse” replied Long Maggie.

“I’m looking forward to a bit of a stroll,” said another stone.

“Not long to go, only another six months till twelfth night,” said Long Maggie.

The drover, rigid with terror, pretended he was still asleep.

“What be that stinking heap of rags and putrefaction that be lying in the middle of our circle?” said a stone.

“Some drunk human. I expect he comes from Whitchurch.”

“Well, ‘tis a good thing it’s not twelfth night, he might watch us walk down to the river for a drink, and steal our treasure.”

The drover was befuddled with drink and fear, but his ears pricked up at the mention of the word “treasure”.

“Gold and silver and precious stones,

Emeralds and rubies, and drover’s bones”

sang a stone.

“Iron and loadstone, and blood from the sky,

And death to the thief who comes wandering by”

sang another.

“The treasure of Arthur and Alfred and all,

And the skull of a thief turned into a ball”

sang two more stones together.

“A game of football up on the hill,

With standing stones playing and treasure there still”

sang another four.

“And I’ll score a goal and head it right in,

Amidst gold and silver, and Cornish tin.”

sang the centre forward.

Well, the drover wasn’t listening to all the words – all he could hear was “treasure”, and “silver”, and “gold”, and “emeralds”, and “rubies”, and “Cornish tin” – Cornish tin, which was once brought along The Old Way to the sea ports of Kent, bound for the continent; it was the most useful of all.

Finally, after midday had passed, the stones stopped talking, and the drover crept away.

The next day he was back; with pick, shovel and grub axe. All day he dug and heaved under a stone: Long Maggie. Back he came, day after day, till he finally toppled the stone. In the pit where the stone had stood, he found a gold ring. It was a wondrous ring, but he had expected more.

“Nothing else for it”, he thought, “sell the ring, and wait for Twelfth Night”. Now, Twelfth Night was the old New Year; the 6th January; it’s a special night, wassailing night,  a night when trees and stones walk, animals talk, and mulled cider is drunk by the gallon.

So – on the evening of Twelfth Night, the drover hid himself in a copse, up on the hill, next to the stone circle.

As the church clock in Overton struck the midnight hour, the stones started to judder and move, and then, rolling and crunching, they circled the fallen form of Long Maggie. Angry scraping sounds came from them, though they said no words, as they helped her upright; after which they started bumping down the hill towards the River Test.

The moon was full, the eyes of the drover were as round and wide as the full moon; and they were even wider when he saw the treasure glinting in the moonlight, for the top of the hill seemed to have opened. As the stones disappeared over the brow of the hill the drover darted forwards and started filling his sacks with treasure.

As he scrabbled at the treasure he saw a golden bell – a beautiful object, covered with elaborate patterns and engravings. He grabbed it, but put one hand inside to hold the clapper and stop it ringing. But grasp it as hard as he could, he couldn’t stop it from moving – firstly it vibrated a little bit, then more, then it started to swing from side to side, the drover’s hand was jerked from the clapper, and the bell rang out – loud and shrill upon the hill.

There was a growling and rumbling, and the drover looked up to see the stones surrounding the hole in the hill.

“THIEF” groaned one.

“ROBBER” creaked another.

“BURGLAR, STONE-TOPPLER” growled Long Maggie.

……and they started to jump up and down, until the whole hill was vibrating.

The drover gave a final scream of terror as the top of the hill fell in upon him – and then, drover and treasure – all had disappeared into the earth.

“Well,” said Long Maggie, “I don’t want to stay here now, Rotten Hill is ruined for me.”

……….and so off they set – the stones bumped, thumped and ground their way along The Old Way – all the way to Stonehenge. The stones of Stonehenge, however, were a bit snooty and full of themselves, what with their lintels and capstones and famousness and wotnot, so the stones of Rotten Hill left the Old Way and lurched up to Avebury, because they knew that there was a village called West Overton there, so the stones reckoned that they’d come from East Overton. Avebury didn’t seem quite the place for them, though, a bit overcrowded, so they followed Woden’s Dyke, a great long earthwork now called the Wansdyke, into Somerset.

Eventually they arrived at the place where stood their long lost cousins, stones they hadn’t seen for ten thousand years – and this was a place called Stanton Drew – and there they stayed.

At Stanton Drew, below the hill,If they’re not gone,They stand there still.

As for the Overton Sheep Fair – with the decline of sheep farming, and mechanisation, and the development of road transport, it eventually died out.

However, in the year 2000, it was reinvented by some imaginative, committed, and stalwart Overton people. I know this because I told stories there – it is a fair that now takes place every four years, and I’ve been to every one. I’m always there, telling tales, so look out for me this year, and ask me for a story.

I would be very much obliged if you would buy me a pint at the same time. Thank you very much.

Oh – by the way – if you go for a game of football on top of Rotten Hill – keep your eye on the ball.