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How the legend of the fearsome Bures Dragon inspired a new novel by Suffolk-born author Liz Trenow called 'The Secrets of the Lake'

In the heart of the Stour valley lies a deep, dark, allegedly bottomless lake... the source of a sinister legend that dates back hundreds of years.

From its depths, they say, emerged a dragon that terrorised local villagers – devouring sheep and the occasional virgin.

So powerful was the story of the Wyrm – a medieval word for dragon or serpent – that a nearby village was renamed Wormingford.

Medieval wall painting of a dragon in Wissington church
Medieval wall painting of a dragon in Wissington church

In a version recounted by a monk in 1405 the creature is said to have retreated for the last time into its marshy lair after being shot at by archers whose arrows bounced off its impenetrable scales.

But the myth persists that if it is disturbed terrible events will follow.

At the centre of the legend is Wormingford Mere, an ancient lake probably formed during the Ice Age.

A dragon was carved into a hillside near Bures in 2012
A dragon was carved into a hillside near Bures in 2012

Isolated and surrounded by trees, it is not hard to imagine it as the home of a mythical monster, although its current role as a private fishing lake is a less romantic one.

The Mere lies halfway between Bures and Wormingford – originally called Withermund’s Ford. The village’s name change was first recorded in 1254.

Suffolk-born author Liz Trenow, who grew up just a few miles away, was told the dragon story as a child.

Now it has inspired her latest book, The Secrets of the Lake, a coming-of-age novel set in 1950.

Cover of The Secrets of the Lake by Liz Trenow
Cover of The Secrets of the Lake by Liz Trenow

The dragon legend triggered the idea of a monstrous long-buried secret threatening to resurface. “It struck me as a fruitful source for a plot,” she said.

The Mere was not the first lake to influence Liz’s childhood. Her family’s home in Little Cornard was on the edge of an old gravel pit that had filled with water.

“We had little boats, and islands, and got to know a lot about the wildlife in the water. In later life these things begin to come back into your consciousness.

Liz Trenow author of The Secrets of the Lake
Liz Trenow author of The Secrets of the Lake

“Then I remember being taken to Wormingford church and shown an amazing stained glass window.”

The window was installed in the 1950s in gratitude for the safe return of those who had come back from the Second World War.

It shows another interpretation of the dragon legend... that it was a crocodile given by Saladin to King Richard 1 during the Crusades, which had escaped from a menagerie and ended up in the River Stour.

The dragon window in Wormingford Church
The dragon window in Wormingford Church

In this version it began stealing sheep and demanding to be fed virgins before being slain by local knight, Sir George of Layer de la Haye.

“However,” said Liz, “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 in the community.

“In the window there is something terrifying and yet rather comical about the long white legs – presumably those of a virgin –dangling from its scary teeth.

“I was entranced by it. It fired my imagination and, aged about eight and long before dragons became commonplace in children’s books and TV, I wrote a story about it.

“It was my first foray into writing and I remember getting praised for it by my teacher.”

Decades later, she has gone back to her first inspiration. Molly, the main character of Secrets of the Lake, is the vicar’s daughter, new to a village and trying to make friends while acting as carer for her Down’s 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 the long hot summer in her childhood when she and her brother befriended Eli, a reclusive World War One veteran who tended the graves in the churchyard.

He tells them the legend of a dragon and how it is reputed to bring evil to the village if disturbed. When tragedy strikes, could the dragon be to blame?

Wormingford is not the only local church with a possible depiction of the legend.

Less than three miles across the fields from the Mere, in Wissington church, is a stunning medieval wall painting of a huge dragon.

The church guidebook suggests it may refer to the Chronicle of Henry de Blaneford of St Albans Abbey, written in 1405.

The monk tells of an evil dragon of excessive length with a huge body, crested head, saw-like teeth and elongated tail which killed a herd of sheep near Bures.

“The servants of Sir Richard Waldegrave who owns the land came forth to shoot it with arrows, which sprang back from its ribs as if they were metal of hard stone and from the spines of its back with a jangling as if they were hitting bronze plates, and flew far away because its skin was impenetrable,” he wrote.

“Almost the whole county was summoned to slaughter it but when it saw that it was to be shot at again, it fled into the marsh, hid in the reeds and was seen no more.”

Bures also has a landmark image of the dragon, carved into a hillside at the time of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations in 2012.

The dragon on Bures hillside
The dragon on Bures hillside

Liz, who has two daughters and three grandhildren and lives in Essex with her artist husband David, began writing fiction after a career in journalism.

She is a member of the family which owns the 300 year-old Sudbury-based silk weaving company Stephen Walters.

Her family history has provided inspiration for previous novels, including The Silk Weaver and The Forgotten Seamstress, which reached the top 20 in the New York Times bestseller list.

“I was blithely unaware as a child how unique my family’s occupation was. I had no real interest in silk and didn’t realise how unusual and different it was,” she said.

Lockdowns deprived her of one of the joys of her career. “I really missed meeting readers and talking to them and hearing their questions and feedback,” she said.

But she did an online talk for Suffolk Libraries on Monday this week, and is due to make an appearance at the Felixstowe book festival on Sunday, June 27. For more information visit www.liztrenow.com.

The Secrets of the Lake, published by Pan, is available from bookstores and online.

Mere facts

Wormingford Mere is a 12 acre lake which is fed by springs and joined on the north side to the River Stour through a small cut.

It is thought to be a glacial feature caused by melting ice.

If it dates from the end of the last Ice Age, it would be at least 10,000 years old.

A study 40 years ago found the water at the centre was 20 feet deep.

Below that lies an unknown depth of mud.

Staff and students from Cambridge University’s Department of Botany took a core of sediment from the Mere in 1981.

They found 30 feet of soft dark mud. Beneath that was compact sediment which they managed to penetrate to a further 17 feet, but could not reach the bottom. Such a thickness of mud is unusual in English lakes.

Pollen analysis from the deepest part the investigators were able to reach dated back about 9,000 years.

Close to the Mere archaeologists have detected traces of prehistoric barrows or burial mounds. This might indicate that the area may have been a sacred or ritual site. Flint tools and pottery have also been found.

The lake is private property with no public access, and is securely fenced.

Five more mysterious lake-dwelling monsters

Lakes have long been seen as mysterious places and tales of monsters lurking in their depths have been around since there were humans to tell them.

Britain has its fair share of legendary lake monsters but they are more common in areas with Celtic heritage like Scotland and Wales than in England.

Here are a few of the creatures of the deep that have kept us guessing through the years.

Morag - Loch Morar, Scotland

Two very different versions of Morag are recorded. One is a mermaid, half woman, half fish with long golden hair who was believed to be an omen of death.

The other is a humped serpent-like creature, of which the first recorded sighting was in 1887. Another was in 1948 when nine people in a boat claimed to have seen a 20ft-long creature in the loch.

Loch Morar is the deepest freshwater lake in the British Isles, with a maximum depth of 1,017 feet.

Teggie - Bala Lake/ Llyn Tegid, Wales

The creature was first spotted in the 1920s, and has been described as looking like a small dinosaur. A former lake manager reported seeing it in the 1970s.

In 1995 tourists saw a head and three metre long neck rise above the water. Later a Japanese TV crew obtained a sonar trace of something big moving swiftly below the water.

The Nwyvre (water dragon) - Llyn Cynwch, Snowdonia

This massive serpent would allegedly paralyse animals and people alike with its gaze before dragging them down into the depths to be devoured.

Legend has it a shepherd found the Nwyvre while it was sleeping and cut off its head.

The dragon is said to be buried in the hillside and a cairn marks the spot.

Bownessie - Lake Windermere, Cumbria

The first reported sighting of Bownessie - named after the nearby town of Bowness - was in 2006. A journalism lecturer described seeing a 30ft snake-like beast with humps from the shores of Wray Castle.

The belief that a monster is living in the lake was fuelled further when holidaymakers thought they spotted the creature in 2011.

... and the most famous of all

No lake monster has captured the public’s imagination like Nessie, said to inhabit the depths of Scotland’s Loch Ness.

There have been countless reports of sightings of a creature described as having a long neck and humped back.

The Loch Ness monster has been likened to a plesiosaur - a marine reptile that became extinct around 80 million years ago.

In the 6th century St Columba is said to have encountered a monstrous creature which had killed a man in the River Ness.

He sent a follower to swim across the river, and when the beast approached Columba made the sign of the cross and ordered it to go back - whereupon it fled.

But most reports of the more benign Nessie date from the 1930s onwards when a new road was built near the lake.

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