Book Review: Hollow Places by Christopher Hadley
Many years ago when I was a student in York, I attended a beer festival in the Assembly Rooms there. I remember only two of the beers now: Old Horizontal, an impossibly strong barley wine sold only in halves; and a beer by a company called Rayment’s, the name of which I have long forgotten, but whose brewery location was unforgettable to an impressionable young northerner - the tiny hamlet of Furneux Pelham in Hertfordshire.
Fast forward through the years and instead of my home town of Warrington, I now live in Ware (same etymological derivation by the way), just a few miles from that mystical village of my student days. Furneux Pelham, that tiny distant curiosity in my blossoming mind, has become reality, and so too its near neighbour, Brent (or Burnt) Pelham, the landscape and denizens of which are the subject of this fascinating work by Christopher Hadley.
Piers Shonks, Dragon Slayer
If any book can define the magic of north Hertfordshire’s astonishing blend of ancient trackways, lonely fields and curious legends, it is Hollow Places.
Taking as its theme the story of Piers Shonks, the mediaeval lord who slayed the dragon and escaped the devil’s claws by being buried within the walls of Brent Pelham church, this book takes us on a journey into the very fabric of what it is to live in the English countryside.
Hollow Places may be set in Hertfordshire but its story speaks to us all. Shonks is not an unusual character, we are told. His story is replicated in varying ways not only in Britain but around the world. Equally, the people of the Pelhams are no different to any others brought up in a remote spot where land changes little and old ways die hard.
Yet here is the spirit of England, passed on through the centuries, by pastor and peasant, squire and serf.
A story of real places, real people, real imagination
Within its 300+ pages, this book peels back the layers of the onion which lie behind anyone’s sense of place and history.
It examines the folklore of the stories told about Shonks in the village: how did they come about; who remembers them; why do the stories vary?
It examines the ancient field names of the parish which might help identify the possible location where that dragon once emerged from a cave there to terrorise the land. It reveals Shonk’s Moat, the desolate homestead enclosure which, though but grassy now, is planted in our minds as strongly as it is engraved today on the Ordnance Survey map.
The book also highlights the curious way in which folk, by demonstration of seeing or touching certain objects or artefacts, are able to assert that deeds actually occurred, irrespective of factual evidence. It reveals how stories appear in county histories, become distorted on the retelling and then emerge as new strands with different truths.
Finally, in the way of good history, it journeys down every lane to chase down different fragments in seeking the reasons as to why things are.
Rigorously researched and enjoyable to read
This is a thorough book which is both joyful to read and of great academic rigour. Indeed, it is far more than "An Unusual History of Land and Legend" described on the cover; it is a magnificent history.
Thus it is that Christopher Hadley journeys to the county of Dorset to seek out the people who made the stone which formed Shonk’s tomb and how the stone is worked to make it shine like marble.
He peels apart the meaning behind the magnificent 13th Century tomb which forms the monument ascribed to him by others.
He tracks down the rhyme above the tomb which extols Shonks and his deeds to every visitor to this lonely church. He digs through parish and legal records in search of Shonks himself, a man whose very name means so many things and which has been misspelt over so many centuries.
The truth of the legend of the dragon slayer?
Despite Hadley’s exhaustive investigative work, does he find out whether Shonks was real? Did Shonks really slay the dragon? I’ll leave you to read the book and find out for yourself.
What I will say is this: Hollow Places is that most special of books. It invites us to see the landscape we are left with and to query how it came to be. It shows that everyone in a landscape is part of its tapestry.
Crucially, Hollow Places leaves us with this salient point: we can, if we choose, destroy all art by logic in the way of an accountant. This book shows us that a more joyous path through life is to accept what we hear and see it as a greater truth, a key to the richness of the mind and the wonder that is folk.
Heaven knows, in this country the accountants and the selfish have done their worst. It is time to embrace once more the wondrous pleasure of our shared humanity. This book holds the key.
Postscript. Earlier this year I took my daughter for a walk through the old deer park to St John’s Pelham along the path by the ancient Aldicke. Afterwards we had a pint at the Brewery Tap opposite the old Rayment’s Brewery; I couldn’t resist ordering a pint of Rayment’s just to see what conversation emerged.
Alas, the barmaid had never heard of it. Unlike Piers Shonks, it seems the fate of Rayment’s will sadly long be forgotten in these lonely fields and lanes.
But not by me.
Hollow Places, An Unusual History of Land and Legend
Author: Christopher Hadley
Published August 2019 by: William Collins
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