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Painted rock snakes preserved as bright mementoes of dark year

Posted on Jan 13, 2021

W hen she first suggested it, she didn’t realise it would get so big. Andree Paterson had been coordinating the hiding and seeking of painted stones for local children via Facebook for a few years now. But when lockdown came to her home town of Kirkcudbright, south-west Scotland, there was a call for something bigger and brighter.

And so Rainbow, the Kirkcudbright stone snake, began. Over the weeks it grew around the St Cuthbert’s church wall, and grew longer again, stretching to 255 metres (837ft) of hundreds of painted stones by July. It attracted summer visitors to admire the stones, and rock artists of all ages to add their own contributions.

Many stones have featured tributes to the NHS and its staff (Wantage, Oxfordshire). Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

In November, Paterson watched huge sacks of the stones be loaded on to a trailer and transported to what will become their permanent home: a corner plot opposite a local nursery centre, where they will be set in concrete when the wintry weather allows. Now she is applying for an entry in the Guinness World Records book.

“Some [of the paintings on the stones] are really just blobs of paint,” said the former care assistant, “while others show real artistry, like a perfect dragonfly or a set of bagpipes.

“It’s about memory. It’ll be great for their children and their children’s children, to remind them of what [the coronavirus pandemic] was like. I think this year has been traumatic for the town. We are lucky that we’ve not had a lot of cases here but it has been very difficult for children and isolating, especially for elderly people. Telling even older people they can add a stone helped them have something to focus on.”

Painted stones, Wantage, Oxfordshire. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

Throughout lockdown and beyond, people confined to their own neighbourhoods across the UK have turned to rock painting as a means of creative connection, with colourful snakes and caterpillars appearing around primary schools, churches and local woodlands, or on waste ground. Many communities have since found means of turning them into permanent displays.

In Scone, Perthshire, the primary school transformed its lockdown caterpillar into a permanent butterfly. A rock snake in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, has been donated to the Abingdon Museum as part of 2020 Covid memorabilia. By New Mills, Derbyshire, painted rocks have been set in concrete along a walking and cycling route. On the Love’s Farm estate in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, the stones have been relocated to the community garden where they can be enjoyed as they are weathered by the elements.

Easter greetings and a friendly octopus: rock snake in Wantage, Oxfordshire. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

Like Paterson, Lisa Cochrane was already managing a rock-hunting game in her village, Milton of Campsie, just north of Glasgow, when she heard about people making Covid snakes during lockdown. “The original idea was to give kids something that was not TV or screens, that gave them something creative to do and got them outside in the fresh air,” she said.

A snake began at Milton of Campsie’s disused railway station, which locals have been restoring, and grew quickly, with over 400 stones stuck with adhesive along the old wooden railway sleepers. “It gave parents who were struggling with their kids inside and running out of ideas something to do,” said Cochrane.

To the north-east, residents of Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, can now admire thousands of painted stones that have been set in concrete along the town’s beachfront promenade.

The snakes of painted stones got longer and longer as people added their contributions (Wantage, Oxfordshire). Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

John Cruickshank, convener of the Stonehaven Horizon group which coordinated the project, described how 300 volunteer hours were spent over the course of six weeks in the summer, laying more than 2,000 stones painted with myriad scenes from sailboats to sunrises and ladybirds to lions.

“People have different reasons for leaving stones. It was partly a release from the grind of lockdown, but also to acknowledge those working to keep us safe,” said Cruickshank. “Painting the stones was a means of expressing their own feelings and it is an eclectic set of images, from animals to local scenes to people’s names. They were putting a permanent marker in the concrete so that their children, and their future children, will remember this strange year.

“There’s a huge amount of emotion out there with all that’s gone on this year, and people are still finding it challenging. But laying the stones was a hope for the future, that things will get better, and that’s reflected in the colours. People and families walk the promenade daily and still discover new things there. Each stone has a story.”

‘Thank you Nurse Lucy and Dr Mike’: painted stones, Wantage, Oxfordshire. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock