Story of Suffolk dragon inspires bestselling author's newest book

Author Liz Trenow

Author Liz Trenow - Credit: Liz Trenow

Author and former journalist Liz Trenow, whose novels include The Silk Weaver and Under A Wartime Sky, says she looked closer to home for her latest tale.

I was brought up in Little Cornard in the beautiful Stour Valley in Suffolk and one of my earliest memories is of visiting the church at nearby Wormingford where a stained glass window dramatically depicts a crocodile being slain by a knight on a white charger.  

The Wormingford Dragon, portrayed in the stained glass window of St Andrew's Church

The Wormingford Dragon, portrayed in the stained glass window of St Andrew's Church - Credit: Liz Trenow

There is something terrifying and yet rather comical about the long white legs dangling like strands of spaghetti from its scary teeth. The image fired my imagination and, aged about eight, I wrote a story about it. Decades later, the legend has become the inspiration for my eighth novel, The Secrets of the Lake.      

I have to confess that when Sarah Perry published her bestseller The Essex Serpent a few years ago, my heart sank. Had she stolen my thunder? It is a wonderful read – I definitely recommend it – but happily it is set in another century, the plot is completely unlike mine and it was inspired by a very different legend, the 17th century account of a ‘monstrous serpent’ near Saffron Walden, the other side of Essex. 

The Secrets of the Lake

The Secrets of the Lake - Credit: Pan Macmillan

The dragon that terrorised the villagers of Bures and Wormingford was first reported at least 200 years earlier by a monk who thrillingly described it as ‘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.' 

The theory is that this 'dragon' was in fact a crocodile given as a gift 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 (hence those waving white legs) 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. 

The 14th century dragon wall painting in Wissington Church

The 14th century dragon wall painting in Wissington Church - Credit: Liz Trenow

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But local lore has it that the crocodile/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. How could I resist this as a plot line? 

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. My main character, Molly, is the vicar’s daughter, newly arrived in the village and trying to make friends while also being a carer for her brother who has Down's Syndrome.  

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 when Eli, a reclusive World War One veteran who tends the graves in the churchyard, tells them about the dragon. When tragedy strikes, it seems the legend is coming true. 

I am very grateful to the village of Wormingford (its very name refers to the dragon, or ‘worme’) for the inspiration that its stained glass window gave to a young author all those years ago. And to the local landowner who marked the millennium by cutting out a giant dragon – a classic image, this one, with wings and fire – into the hillside near Bures, a few miles away. The earliest image can be found in a 14th century wall painting in nearby Wissington Church.  

The dragon carved into the hillside in Bures

The dragon carved into the hillside in Bures - Credit: Liz Trenow

All these depictions make for a wonderful ‘dragon trail’ along the Stour Valley. Sadly you can only glimpse The Mere through fences, as it is owned by an angling society. And 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 the characters and events in The Secrets of the Lake are pure fiction! 

The Secrets of the Lake is published by Pan Macmillan and is out Thursday, May 13.