Virginia Barton

16 May 2014: Thieves in the night


16 May 2014


The house was up for sale and no-one was living in it. Even the long-term tenant had left. Everyone for miles around must have known that it was empty. Some low-down barefaced crooks broke in and ransacked the place, taking everything portable, especially clocks.

My sister was summoned and I went with her for moral support and added muscle. Our first reaction was fury; I remember stamping round the house yelling regrettable swear words. The police were charming, and over quantities of tea advised us that the thieves might be back. We went to bed with a classic assortment of pans, lids, and an old klaxon motor horn. In the old days this relic had been used instead of a gong, to summon the children for lunch from the far reaches of the garden.


ChestOne thing the burglars did not take was the lacquered cupboard (right) full of my Great-Grandpa’s collection of stones. Since I have inherited his passion (and the cupboard), I am grateful for this.

Instead of using the little key conveniently in the lock and labelled “Key to Lacquer Cabinet”, they levered the doors open, then tipped the contents upside down onto a nearby bed. In the cupboard there are ten drawers of graduated size, each one containing as many stones as will fit. How disappointed the robbers must have been when they found handfuls of rocks, not gold or jewels or even coins.

To me the stones are magic. I love to hold them, turn them about and stroke them. Perhaps because mountains were the backdrop to a happy childhood, I have always picked up stones: from a river-bed, beach, fell side, even the car park at Dunrobin Castle in Scotland. The Cross to mark our grave was carved ages ago on a fine piece of Northumberland stone, and if I could afford it, I would buy colossal stone sculptures.




Great-Grandpa polished a few random pieces from his collection, revealing fabulous colours, striations, and patterns. A largish piece of sandstone is polished on one side, making it a handy doorstop. Some of the stones have teensy bits of paper stuck on them with teensy writing saying where they were found: Fingal’s Cave, Mount Sidon, Striding Edge, Abu Simbel. I have added my own: an inch of the Berlin Wall (gift), a smidgen from near the Arch of Titus (promise! no chiselling), a baby whale’s tooth (gift). No Moon rock yet; this is easy to purchase but that would be cheating.


The Museum of Natural History in the city kindly sent an expert to look at the collection. The petrologist (or was she a mineralogist?) said, rather drily I thought – I would have put it more romantically – that the contents of the cabinet represented an interesting example of a 19th century collection. She identified every item and suggested I photograph and re-pack them.

None of the stones were especially valuable or rare. So the burglars did well not to burden themselves with such worthless objects. But I still think they showed a crass lack of imagination.

Happily, at least two of our grandchildren share Great-Grandpa’s enthusiasm, and from a very young age have asked if they may open the cupboard and take out the precious objects. Of course they can! One thing about a passion is that you long to share it.


P.S. The police did a fantastic job and recovered everything – except for the INSIDE of a grandfather clock, and a wooden display case of bird’s eggs. I blush to think of my ancestor collecting bird’s eggs, but times were different then. He would blush at lots of the things we collect nowadays, no doubt.





  • Jack L says on: May 16, 2014 at 6:03 pm


    You’ve discovered one of my weaknesses, Ginny. As a boy I collected stones and bits of masonry wherever we traveled. This meant VERY heavy suitcases to carry on the journey home. I would display these on any available bookshelf, with the origin and date inked on discreetly. Over the years the smaller ones were stored away, but the grander ones remain, including a hunk of lava from the top of Vesuvius, a slab of dried peat from an Irish bog (does that count?), and a piece of coral from a Hawaiian beach (I’ve since learned that taking the latter risks eternal bad luck, although I’ve not had a greater share of this than usual). As an adult it’s still hard to resist putting a stone or two in the pocket as a remembrance.

    And then there’s the bag of pink sand from a Bermuda beach, and the bricks from the foundation of the Hollywood home of Rudolph Valentino, pulled from the rubble as The Sheik’s palace was torn down…

  • Ginny says on: May 17, 2014 at 7:33 pm


    Good to know I’m not the only rockaholic, Jack! What’s the fatal attraction I wonder? The permanence, texture or colour? It’s not only the association — in fact that comes a long way down my list. We don’t feel like that about water, do we; I’m not given to filling bottles of my favorite lake or sea water.

    Has any reader a little stone from the top of Everest and, if so, how did they come by it? I think my personal highest is from Petra. And do you prefer rough or polished? Ginny

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