The mysterious beasts rumoured to have terrorised Essex
- Credit: Liz Trenow
Liz Trenow, author of The Secrets of the Lake, examines Essex's mystical beasts...
The best-selling novel The Essex Serpent, which was recently filmed locally for a major movie, was apparently inspired by the 17th century account of a ‘monstrous serpent’ near Saffron Walden.
But this is not the only story of mysterious creatures from the county. There is another, much earlier, myth of a serpent or dragon that terrorised the villagers of Bures and Wormingford near Colchester.
Indeed Wormingford, originally Withermundford, was renamed in honour of the legend, ‘worme’ being a medieval term for a dragon. It was first reported in 1405 by a monk who thrillingly described ‘an evil dragon of excessive length with a huge body, crested head, saw-like teeth and elongated tail... arrows sprang from its ribs as if they were metal or hard stone’.
One theory is that this 'dragon' was in fact a crocodile given as a gift by King Saladin to King Richard I during the 12th century Crusades and originally kept at the Tower of London.
It somehow escaped – perhaps from a travelling menagerie – and found its way to the River Stour, where it started stealing sheep and, so the legend goes, demanding to be fed virgins until the supply began to run out.
In desperation the villagers turned to a local knight, Sir George of Layer de la Haye, who efficiently despatched the beast as though his mother had named him for the task.
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However, local lore has it that the crocodile or dragon lives on in Wormingford Mere to this day, and mysterious bubbles are seen when the beast is displeased. If it is disturbed, the story goes, evil things will happen in the community.
I was brought up in a nearby village and one of my earliest memories is of visiting Wormingford Church to see the stained glass window in which the ‘dragon’ is dramatically depicted being slain by a knight on a white charger.
There is something terrifying and yet rather comical about the long white legs (presumably those of a virgin) dangling from its scary teeth. It fired my imagination and, aged about eight, long before dragons became commonplace in children’s books and on TV, I wrote a story about it. Decades later, the legend has become the inspiration for my eighth novel.
The Secrets of the Lake is a coming of age story set in the 1950s, as the traumas of two world wars continued to reverberate through the community. The main character, Molly, is the vicar’s daughter, newly arrived in the village and trying to make friends while also acting as carer for her Downs Syndrome brother.
Sixty years later, Molly is visited by police who tell her that human bones have been found in a drained lake. The discovery prompts distressing memories of that long hot summer in her childhood when she and her brother befriend Eli, a reclusive World War I veteran who tends the graves in the churchyard. He recounts the legend of the dragon and how it is reputed to bring evil to the village if disturbed. When tragedy strikes, could the dragon be to blame?
I am very grateful to the village of Wormingford for the inspiration that stained glass window gave to a young, aspiring author all those years ago. And to the landowner who in the year 2000, as a millennium project, was inspired to cut out a giant dragon – a classic image, this one, with wings and fire – into the hillside just a few miles away. I walk in that area as often as I can, delighted to see the legend still being celebrated in this way.
But if you are local, or a visitor, don’t expect to find the real Wormingford in my novel. Apart from the dragon legend and a few other local references, my village, all its characters and the events that take place are pure fiction.
The Secrets of the Lake by Liz Trenow is published by Pan Macmillan, priced £8.99. ISBN: 9781529036619
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