Just to the south of Tewkesbury lies the small village of Deerhurst. Its not somewhere that people often go to. As you drive from Gloucester to Tewkesbury it's only sign posted once and if you blink you'll miss that. Even when you drive to it it's possible to drive through the village not realising it's there. The easiest way to find Deerhurst is to look for the ancient monument signs directing you to Odda's Chapel. This building itself is worth a look.
On the way to Odda's Chapel you pass Deerhurst church on the right and this Saxon-Norman edifice is really the starting point of my tale because when you enter Deerhurst church you enter a world of fantasy , a world of dragons and valiant deeds.
The oldest account of the legend of the Deerhurst dragon that I have been able to find is contained within the pages of a compendious tomb called "The Ancient and Present State of Gloucestershire" by a gentleman called "Sir Robert Atkyns". This account was written towards the end of the 1600's but unfortunately Sir Robert gives us no idea of how old the legend was at that time.
The legend goes like this;
THERE LIVED IN THE VICINITY OF DEERHURST A SERPENT OF PRODIGIOUS
IT POISONED THE PEOPLE AND THE CATTLE AND RAVAGED THE LAND.
THE KING ISSUED A DECREE TO THE EFFECT THAT WHOEVER COULD RID THE LAND OF THIS MENACE WOULD RECEIVE A GRANT OF LANE, THE ESTATE OF WALTON HILL.
THE TASK WAS UNDERTAKEN BY ONE JOHN SMITH, A LABOURING MAN.
HE WENT TO THE SERPENTS FAVOURITE RESTING PLACE WHERE HE FOUND THE BEAST ASLEEP IN THE SUN.
WITH A MIGHTY BLOW OF HIS AXE HE CLEAVED THE HEAD OF THE SERPENT FROM IT'S BODY. SO RIDDING THE LAND OF THE BEAST FOREVER.
At the time Atkyns was writing he tells us that descendants of John Smith were still living on land at Walton Hill and indeed that the axe itself was in the possession of the widower of one of those descendants. However, no further evidence exists to support the legend. We cannot date it, no record of the grant of land is forthcoming and of the axe there is no sign.
Carving from inside Deerhurst church
|Now bearing that in mind we have to
wonder why there is a Deerhurst Dragon legend at all but it's at this point the church
comes in to it's own for it is covered in dragon carvings.
We must ask ourselves why are there so many carvings in this particular location. It must have been an importantsite for the Saxons. Odda's Chapel is Saxon and the church is part Saxon but why carve so many dragons. They don't appear in such abundance anywhere else in the area. Though the Saxon-Norman church of Tredington, a few miles to the east also has a dragon carving and an actual dragon for fossilised in a stone in the porch are the bones of a small dinosaur.
I'll get back to the business of the legend in a minute but first I want to tell you about an alignment of ancient sites of which Deerhurst or rate Walton hill lies at one end.
The alignment runs E.S.E. from Walton Hill passing close to the summit of Cleeve Hill, through Belas Knap long barrow, on through a cross roads known as Roel Gate past a small unidentified round barrow, close to Naunton church, through the point at which the B4068 crosses the river Windrush at Harford Bridge, passed a tumulus at Wagborough Bush and terminates at Wyck Rissington.
For any alignment 9 sites over about 25 miles is pretty good going. But what if any is the significance of the sites?
Well lets start at the other end first.
Canon Harry Cheals's maze at
|Wyck Rissington has a church and
it's old and we all know the Christians were in the habit of building there places of
worship on pagan sacred sites and indeed the name of the place gives us some indication
that this may be the case for the name Wyck Rissington translates from Saxon as "A
building of special significance on a hill covered with brushwood."
Now the building in question could have been anything from a shrine to a cowshed but I don't think the latter would have merited having a place named after it even back then. Not only that but in 1947 the than Cannon Harry Cheales had a vision there instructing him to build a maze.
Now it may seem odd to sight an event which took place in 1947 in support of an ancient alignment but what is a maze representative of in ancient pagan art. The coils of earth energy otherwise know as the serpent.
The next site was Wagborough Bush.
Tumuli and barrows are often used as mark points on alignments and once again the significance of this one lies in its name.
We know that "borough" derives from the Saxon "Beorg" meaning barrow and in this case it's my belief the "Wag" derives from the Saxon "Weg" meaning way. Therefore we have the name "Way Barrow". Obvious isn't it?
Now Harford Bridge.
The name this time is easy, it's a corruption of Hart Ford and no doubt in Saxon times there would have been a ford or ferry to cross the river Windrush and it is an important site for this reason.
If you ever go to Roel Gate you'll find it's a desolate place. A cross roads out on the top of a wild Cotswold hill it doesn't seem to have anything going for it. The Romans must have thought it was a good spot though for nestled in the valley below is a Roman Villa, hidden in Spoonley Wood. It's a balmy spot. But the wind whistles cold over Roel Gate.
So what's the significance here? Well it's a cross roads, that's a good start and this one has a very good pedigree going back in time for it was the point at which the Jurassic way and the Salt way went their separate ways having come from the north together.
The name again gives us the clue to it's importance for Roel translates as Roebuck Well giving us an obvious stopping point for thirsty animals and humans.
The last major point before Walton Hill is Belas
Knap long barrow.
To those that have been there will recognise the importance of such an enormous barrow. Author R.P. Bekinsale went so far as to liken it to the pyramids of Egypt. Well that might be stretching it a bit but it is an impressive sight dominating the top of the hill. However, surprisingly it's not the size or prominence of Belas Knap which makes important in this case.
Again the clue is in the name for it translates as Beacon Hill and indeed we find that the excavation of it revealed within it's structure a circle of stone containing a fire pit, not filled with cremation remains as you might expect but ordinary combustible material. We can only conclude from this that there was indeed a beacon of fire on this site before the barrow.
Then at the end of the line is Walton Hill.
It like Roel Gate is quite unimpressive to look at. No obvious sites are there. Even our legend isn't named after it. One possible explanation goes like this; On a old map I found it referred to as Waurton Hill, now I believe "Waur" to be a shortening of "Waurm", a spelling sometimes used like "Wyrm" or "Worm" to describe a serpent or dragon. "ton" means estate or land giving us "serpent land" although "ton" occasionally is taken to mean stone leading us to "serpent stone".
Remember the fossil in Treddington church?
Of course "Walton Hill" can also be translated as "Estate of Welsh serfs" so it might all be a load of nonsense anyway.
Now just to wrap up this piece of etymological terpsichore I'll deal with the place at the heart of the matter. Deerhurst translates like this; "Hurst" comes from "hyrst" meaning wood or copse. "Deer" comes from "Deor" meaning wild beast. So the accepted translation of Deerhurst is "wood to which Deer come". Of course you might prefer to see the "wild beast" as a dragon giving you dragon wood near dragon hill.
Good isn't it.
Now I'll finish with a wacky theory. Dragons are supposed to be balanced elemental beings so here goes
At Walton Hill he have a dragon
At Wyck Rissington we have the maze representing the dragon
At Belas Knap we have Fire.
At Harford Bridge we have Water.
At Wagborough Bush we have Earth.
So where is Air?
Well Roel Gate is an airy place and if you've been there you'll know it's always windy so it's the obvious choice for Air to give us our balanced dragon. But remember what I said about serpent energy, earth energy. Supposing Roel Gate was water, remember it is a well. That would put our serpent out of balance.
Would it's energy then have the effect of poisoning the people and the cattle and ravaging the land?
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