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Story of Brent Pelham dragonslayer and giant Piers Shonks sparks 'a quest across history' for journalist and Bishop's Stortford rugby club coach Christopher Hadley




A Bishop’s Stortford rugby club coach’s book chronicling Hertfordshire's legendary dragonslayer Piers Shonks will be officially launched in Bishop's Stortford on Wednesday (September 4).

Journalist Christopher Hadley has been working on the epic read, Hollow Places, An Unusual History of Land and Legend, for the past decade and will be giving a talk and signing copies in South Street bookshop Waterstone's.

The book’s publication in August crowned a significant month for the Hadley family: son Max, 18, former head boy at The Bishop’s Stortford High School, passed his A-Levels and is off to study physics and philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford.

Journalist and Stortford rugby club youth coach Christopher Hadley (15663913)
Journalist and Stortford rugby club youth coach Christopher Hadley (15663913)

Christopher and wife Rebecca, a GP partner at the town’s South Street Surgery, are also parents to Daisy, 15, who is studying for her GCSEs at Herts and Essex High School, and Caspar, who is about to start Year 9 at TBSHS.

All three children play at Stortford rugby club at Silver Leys, where Christopher has coached colts (U18s) for the past two years and is now training U18 girls and U14 boys.

The 47-year-old was inspired by a black marble tomb in the north wall of Brent Pelham’s church of St Mary the Virgin, which is said to hold the bones of legendary giant Piers Shonks, who slayed a dragon and defied the devil.

The tomb of dragonslayer Piers Shonks. Pic: Vikki Lince (15755097)
The tomb of dragonslayer Piers Shonks. Pic: Vikki Lince (15755097)

His book searches for the truth behind this fantastic story and asks if people in the past believed such legends and if they still have a message for today.

The story is a first published book for Christopher, who has written for the Independent, Guardian, The Times, London Review of Books and Esquire.

He said: “Hollow Places is a grown-up history book but about dragons and dragonslayers, giants and the devil. That's such good material to get stuck into.

"For many years I was the main carer for the children, doing bits and pieces of journalism, but mostly looking after the children and getting involved in village life.

The inscription above the tomb of dragonslayer Piers Shonks. Pic: Vikki Lince (16001018)
The inscription above the tomb of dragonslayer Piers Shonks. Pic: Vikki Lince (16001018)

“Being a writer with a history degree, I naturally started to find out about where I lived, the history of the village, its stories and characters, the field names and so on. As I say in the opening par of chapter one of my book, ‘I like to know where dragons once lurked and where the local fairies baked their loaves, where wolves were trapped and suicides buried'.”

He first learned about the tomb after moving to neighbouring Furneux Pelham 17 years ago.

“My curiosity just grew and grew – whose wouldn't?! It's an amazingly rich story and I set off on a quest across history to get to the bottom of it.

The church of St Mary the Virgin, Brent Pelham. Pic: Vikki Lince (16001016)
The church of St Mary the Virgin, Brent Pelham. Pic: Vikki Lince (16001016)

"I met a fantastic cast of characters to find out about and to write about – disreputable squires, 18th-century antiquaries, penniless artists, Elizabethan poets, 13th-century stonemasons – all who had played their part in this wonderful story in this little village in Hertfordshire.

“It also meant that I could spend a lot of time doing 'detective' work in the great libraries and archives of the land, handling centuries-old manuscripts and unriddling them. I love that and I do my utmost to convey the thrill of the hunt to my readers.

"There's also a lot of landscape in the book and I spent many hours exploring the fields and woods in this part of the world. I was just doing that and taking notes on that anyway.

Church of St Mary the Virgin, Brent Pelham. Pic: Vikki Lince (16001025)
Church of St Mary the Virgin, Brent Pelham. Pic: Vikki Lince (16001025)

“I honestly cannot separate the writing and the researching of Hollow Places. They both happened in tandem, each driving the other. I started writing and researching the book as soon as I found out about the legend. Or rather I started writing and researching something, filling the notebooks. I probably didn't know what it was going to be at the outset. An essay, a pamphlet... it grew in ambition and grew into Hollow Places.”

While the task, which included reading rat-eaten court documents from 1248 written in medieval Latin, stretched over a decade, Christopher was keen to stress there were gaps in the process.

“I didn't sit for 10 years writing it. It came in fits and starts, particularly in the middle years. There was about a two-year period when I did nothing on it, got stuck and started writing something else. I wrote a novel in that time, too, which may see the light of day in the future, and I started another history-based project based on the Herts-Essex border. That has now become my next project.”

* Admission to the book launch at Waterstone's on Wednesday, from 6.30pm to 8.30pm, is free. Invitations are available from the shop in South Street.

* Hollow Places, An Unusual History of Land and Legend, is published by William Collins and costs £20.



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