On the Quantock Hills in Somerset, folk lived in mortal fear of a bloodthirsty dragon who rampaged through the countryside by night, killing and feasting on any living thing in its path. By day it slept, coiled up like a huge serpent, in Shervage Wood. The creature was known as 'The Gurt Wurm of Shervage', and this is its story!
Every year, in late September, folk gather in St Matthew's Field for Bridgwater's famous fair. From right across the town they come, and from the hills and hamlets too – from Timberscombe, Triscombe, Crowcombe and Hestercombe, from Holford and Stolford, Stogursey and Stogumber. They come to buy and to sell, to entertain and to be entertained, to meet old friends and to make new ones. It's been this way for hundreds of years!
But this particular September, of which I now speak, things were not the same as usual. Folk set out their stalls in silence; no one laughed; there was a watchful, nervous look on farmers' faces as the animals were herded into pens. There were whisperings and mumblings and mutterings in corners.
A cloud of dark rumour was gathering, and casting its shadow over the town:
"Does ee fancy there be fewer sheep this year?"
"Oh-arr. And fewer ponies."
"'appen it be true what they'd say about the Wurm."
"'appen. They say that it do roam the hills by night. Eats any livin' thing in its path!"
"Eats sheep and deer and ponies they'd say – cattle too!"
"Gorges itself by night and sleeps by day up in Shervage Wood."
"Body thick as three great oak trees, they d' say!"
"Not long, I reckon, 'til it do crave some human flesh!."
"Young shepherd lad's gone missing up near Stowey."
"And two stable lads, I heard, from Crowcombe way."
Meanwhile, in a cottage out at Crowcombe, a widow by the name of Maggie Conibeer was busy making whortleberry tarts when she heard a loud knocking at her door and a cheerful voice calling her name:
"You there, Maggie? 'Tis Joe Tottle from Stogumber. Mebbees you have some jobs for I?"
Joe was a woodcutter, a simple, friendly fellow, who was partial to Maggie's cooking and particularly fond of Maggie's fine cider. In exchange for a good meal and a pint of cider, he would often chop wood or do other small jobs about the cottage.
(I should mention, at this point, that although most folk on the Quantock hills lived in mortal fear of 'The Gurt Wurm', news of the deadly creature had not yet reached Stogumber!)
Maggie agreed with Joe that if he picked some whortleberries and chopped some wood, he could go with her to Bridgwater Fair on the horse and cart, help sell the whortleberry tarts and take a share in the earnings.
Delighted with the plan, Joe set off up the steep hill from Crowcombe, with one of Maggie’s baskets on his arm.
He'd a napkin full of bread and cheese and a flagon of Maggie's strongest cider to see him through the day.
"Be sure ee keep away from Shervage Wood!" Maggie called after him. But Joe was half way up the hill and whistling loudly to himself. He didn't hear her.
By mid-day the sun was blazing overhead. Joe's basket was full of plump, purple whortleberries, but the flagon of cider was almost empty. He had wandered further than he intended and had reached the edge of Shervage Wood. Time to rest in the shade, he thought, and have a bite to eat. The wood was dark and eerily silent, but Joe welcomed the cool shade and the peace. Settling himself down on a large fallen tree, he tucked into his lunch.
Suddenly the tree trunk he was sitting on began to wobble.
"Whoa! Whoa!" said Joe, steadying himself. "This be good zyder and no mistake!" He drained the flask and carried on eating.
A moment later the trunk began to move again. Not just a wobble this time, but a squirming and a writhing and a wriggling, as if the fallen tree were a living creature! Joe was a good-natured fellow mostly but, once roused, his temper could be fearsome.
"Spoil my meal, would ee?" he bellowed, leaping to his feet. "Take that! And that!! And that!!!" So saying, he split the mighty 'tree' in half with three clean blows of his axe.
The Quantock hills trembled and an ear-splitting howl of raw pain echoed through Shervage Wood! Joe gaped in amazement as the top half of the 'tree' ran, roaring through the woods in the direction of Taunton and the lower, headless half scuttled off towards Minehead.
He looked down at his axe and saw that it was dripping with dragon's blood!
By the time Maggie and Joe reached Bridgwater Fair, they had a tale worth telling. Folk queued to buy Maggie's whortleberry tarts and hear her story, and Joe had more cider than he could drink as they urged him to tell and tell again, just how the dragon met its end.
Did Maggie and Joe marry and live happily ever after? Well, that I can't say, but what I can say is this – they both lived well off that tale for many years to come!
And what became of the Gurt Wurm, you ask? Well, it seems that one half reached Kingston St Mary and the other half ended up in Bilbrook, near Minehead. Both halves of the beast, separated by so many miles, finally died.
So that is the story of what happened when a simple woodcutter sat on a Wurm. But some folk say that, before Joe killed it, the Gurt Wurm laid an egg in Shervage Wood.
Now dragons' eggs, as you probably know, take hundreds of years to incubate. By my calculations, this one should be ready to hatch just about …………… NOW!!!!