Shervage Wood is at the north end of the Quantock Hills, which are in Somerset. The hills themselves have evidence of people living on them since prehistoric times. There are round barrows (burial mounds) from the Bronze Age and hill forts from the Iron Age. Silver coins from Roman times have been discovered. There have been battles fought on and over them from King Alfred fighting the Danes to the Civil War and the Monmouth rebellion to dethrone James II.
Today the hills are peaceful and loved by walkers, cyclists and tourists. In 1956 they were designated England’s first ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. The Quantock hills are made up of heathland, oak woodlands, old parklands and farmland. Shervage Wood, contains mostly oak trees, and is bordered on one side by heathlands and on the other by farmland. The ground cover is made up mostly of grass, holly and Whortleberries!!
It seems that Shervage wood has been thought to be mysterious and, maybe, enchanted throughout its long history. As well as the story of the dragon, it contains a pool called ‘Wayland’s Pool’ where the god of smiths cooled the horsehoes he made for the god Odin and his Wild Hunt. Odin is a warrior Norse god who leads the hunt across the skies of the great warriors who have died in battle. To a human, seeing the hunt is a sign of death or disaster. It is said that horses are very wary of this area!
What are Whortleberries?
Whortleberries and their bush
Whortleberries are the name in Somerset for the wild bilberries that grow on high, acidic ground such as the Quantock Hills and Exmoor. They have many other names in other places, including myrtle blueberry, hurtleberry and wimberry. In Somerset they are called ‘Worts’ or ‘Urts’ by the local people. The bushes grow low to the ground and flower in April, providing early nectar for bees. They fruit mostly during July and August, with small, nearly black berries. They are related to the American blueberry, but smaller and tastier.
The ‘family’ name of this plant is ‘myrtillus vaccinium’. The legend goes that Myrtillus, was a charioteer son of the god Hermes, whose cheating and double dealing caused him to be thrown over a cliff into the sea. When his body was washed ashore, his father turned it into a whortleberry bush in his memory.
Whortleberries have been used in healing throughout the ages. They are rich in vitamins C and D and are widely believed to help in the healing of wounds. They have been used to treat bruising, varicose veins and many disorders of blood vessels. The juice stains most things and has been used as a dye for cloth and, by the Ancient Britons, for face painting. There was a belief amongst the pilots of WW2, that eating whortleberries improved their night vision.
What is a Gurt Wurm?
Sometimes spelt Gurt Wyrm, meaning great dragon. Wyrm was the old English word, whilst in high German it was spelt Wurm, both meaning snake or serpent – a reptile of some sort. Up to medieval times, dragons were imagined to be without legs, but since then they have been shown with legs, more like a lizard with wings than a winged serpent.
There appear to be two main types of dragons coming out of two different cultures. The European dragon was born out of Greek and Middle Eastern mythology and is usually a dangerous, fire breathing creature, which terrorizes the population near it, hords gold and is often killed by a hero (eg St. George).
The Eastern or Chinese dragon however, whilst not looking very different, is wise and powerful and controls water and storms. It brings good luck to those who deserve it and outstanding people are compared to it. The Emperors of China usually had a dragon as a symbol of their power and strength.
In Wales, the dragon has traditionally been seen more kindly in their stories, and the Welsh flag carries a red dragon. Popular belief holds that King Arthur’s standard also bore a red dragon; the coat of arms of Henry VII certainly did. Interestingly, the people of Somerset, where the Gurt Wurm lived (and its egg is yet to be found), have adopted a flag showing a red dragon on a gold background.
What was Bridgwater fair?
Bridgwater was a village in Saxon times, situated on the edge of the Somerset Levels. When the Normans conquered England, William gave the village and a bridge nearby to one of his followers called Walter of Douai. The village became known as the Bridge of Walter. In 1200, King John granted it a charter to hold a weekly market. Soon, the village flourished and became a town.
From 1249, in addition to the weekly market, Bridgwater held an annual fair lasting over several days. This attracted sellers and buyers from the whole of Somerset. Originally it was a horse and cattle fair, happening near St Matthew’s day, hence its name. Over the years, the importance of the fair grew. It was the one day of the year that people left their villages, plied their wares, hired out their labour and skills, and bought the goods that were not available back home, eg pots, pans, cloth, even boots and shoes. Tales of a dangerous ‘wurm’, stopping people coming out of fear, could mean they had no chance of earning the money for their goods that would keep them in food for the rest of the year. Disastrous!
Nowadays St Mathews fair is a huge funfair; in England it is second only to the one held in Nottingham, Goose Fair. This grew out of the entertainers who would travel the fairs with performing bears, wrestling or knife throwing displays to amuse the crowds. In the 19th century, swing boats and roundabouts appeared. These proved hugely popular; as technology advance, the rides became more thrilling and the horse and cattle market disappeared. St Mathew’s fair evolved into the funfair we know today.