I’ve never really had many hobbies. As a young boy in the early 80s, I tended to adopt pastimes that had the potential to permanently enshrine my virginity. For instance, I collected matchbox covers for a short while, which I arranged in a scrapbook according to their country of origin. I also collected beer mats, which my grandad used to pick up for me. One week, a pristine Babycham mat, the next, a slightly damp and dog-eared one featuring Hofmeister’s George the Bear, scooped off a pub table through a puddle of spilled bitter and Cinzano. By the time my interest in beer mats waned, I probably had enough for an exhibition at the V&A.
Not long afterwards, I had a bit of a thing for Airfix kits. I constructed a kick-ass Avro Vulcan B. Mk2 and a Hawker Hurricane Mk.1, which I dangled proudly from my bedroom ceiling. But then that hobby fizzled out, too.
A few years later, I collected Panini Football 86 stickers (officially the only album I’ve ever completed) and Garbage Pail Kids cards – both a rite of passage rather than a ‘hobby’. But nothing else – beyond playing Sunday league youth football for a few years – really qualified.
Over the last few years of creeping middle age, I’ve really enjoyed gardening – but I don’t even have time to do that justice anymore. With two young children, the relaxation of green-fingered pottering has been replaced with occasional frenzied attempts at basic garden maintenance. I hurriedly sweep the Flymo across our minuscule lawn of moss and clover, while my youngest son throws stones and handfuls of mulch onto it. I’m not sure hobbies are meant to be so frantic and time-pressured. Unless your pastime is escapology, maybe.
Anyway, I recently embraced a new hobby: rock painting. I now paint small rocks and hide them for people (children, mainly) to find. And if you’re wondering how serious I am about this new pastime, well, at the weekend I asked my wife if she’d care to “Mod Podge my elephant” – so it’s about as serious as it gets.
It all started when I visited Charlecote Park one afternoon with my family and found a rock in a flower bed with some colourful robots painted on it. On the back of the rock it said: “Henley Rocks FB – post pic and re-hide! Alex x.” Some on-the-spot Googling took us to a Facebook group, which immediately opened us up to the world of rock painting – a completely benign pastime with no other agenda than to make people smile.
I’m not renowned for spreading sugar-coated smiles and happiness, but something about it appealed to me. We took Alex’s rock from Charlecote and re-hid it on the beachfront at Gorleston-on-Sea while we were on holiday a few weeks later – but not before we’d stocked up on paint brushes, acrylic paints, Posca pens, and waterbase sealer so that we could paint some rocks ourselves.
For my first attempt, I painted a Fab lolly and hid the rock among some plants next to a pathway at work. But when I went to check on it the following day after a night of torrential rain it looked like it had sat there for a hundred years. Due to my not sealing the rock properly the paint had bubbled and blistered, like a terrible pox had befallen it. My lolly remained in the undergrowth for so many weeks, I felt like sneaking back and painting some ants crawling all over it, just to make it more authentic. It’s disappeared now, but I don’t know where to?
Since that time, I’ve painted several more rocks but very few have been posted to Facebook. My happy elephant, which I left on a windowsill outside an ice cream parlour: gone. My sleeping deer, which I hid in the log-pile at Mr Ferdy Fox’s House at Priory Maze & Gardens: taken within an hour. My bears, my pirate ship, my rainy day foxes, my son’s ‘monkey face’ and crocodile, my wife’s rainbow bug and hedgehog, for Christ’s sake!! All disappeared without a trace.
It’s the not knowing that really gets to you.
I’ve had a couple of successes. My rocket travelled from Coughton Court in Alcester to Kinloch Rannoch, Scotland, then was re-hidden in a dry stone wall on Holy Island, Northumberland, before being found and re-hidden in St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, Ireland. And my ham-fisted attempt at a Russian doll (with a face worthy of a failed fresco restoration by Cecilia Giménez) made it all the way from Attwell Farm Park in Redditch to Portland Bill Lighthouse in Dorset. It’s now been re-hidden somewhere in Manchester, but is yet to resurface.
But it’s the thrill of someone potentially finding your rocks, and posting about it, that keeps you painting and hiding them. I rarely go anywhere these days without scouring the surrounding landscape for perfect rocks to shove in my pockets, as well as keeping my eyes peeled for other people’s hidden artworks. It’s become something of an obsession.
There are a few rules, obviously. As it’s mainly children that find these rocks, there should be no 18+ designs. So if you wanted to, say, painstakingly recreate Chris Foss’s famous line drawings of Charles Raymond and his German wife, Edeltraud, from the Joy of Sex, you’ll have to think again. Unless you painted them as a couple of cute pandas and stuck a rainbow in there or something. Oh, and there’s no advertising or politics, which can only be a good thing.
So in these uncertain, divisive, and hate-filled times, why not do something completely lovely and put a smile on someone’s face! You’ll never see many of the rocks again, but the ones that are found will make your day.