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The Cuerdley Dragon

December 10, 2013

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Nestled inconspicuously on the North Cheshire plains, near the banks of the river Mersey, lies the borough of Halton. At first glance its two principal towns, Runcorn and Widnes, which sit on either side of the river, seem very ordinary and uninteresting.  However, hidden beneath the sprawling mass of chemical industries and urban development is an area rich in myth, magic and legend.

One persistent legend from before the Dark Ages which has been passed down via oral tradition from generation to generation, tells of the exploits of Robert Byrch, a blacksmith who lived and worked in Cuerdley marsh, situated by the banks of the river Mersey in Widnes.

Ancient Halton, unlike today, was mostly covered in dense leafy forest which gave way to waterlogged marshland nearer the river. The forests were home to myriad wild beasts, ranging from wolves to deer and the occasional wild hog. Nearby, the village of Farnworth, where Robert Byrch retired to in the evenings, was situated on the crest of a small promontory on the edge of the trees, but still deep enough inside the trees to be ‘off the beaten track’, away from the regular travelers who plied the main highways through the borough.

Robert Byrch’s smithy was located at Cuerdley, a marshy area between Farnworth and the river.  Here the local villagers, including Robert, let their livestock roam to graze on the lush marsh grasses.

Robert gained a reputation for the quality of his work, and he was sought out by Nobel men and farmers from across the land.  His craftsmanship and ingenuity was legendary and the strength of his metals was second to none.

By day the village and the marsh were tranquil and idyllic, a peaceful haven away from the feudal wars which ravaged most of England at that time. The peace would only be disturbed by the occasional party of hunters in search of wild deer or boar. However, as night fell, it was a different story altogether.

According to the pagan traditions, passed down through the centuries, it was believed that the forests were also the home of many fantastic creatures, spirits and phantoms who inhabited the nearby caves, ancient trees and the inky depths of the deepest lakes. It was generally believed that when darkness fell, all the strange beasts would emerge from the heart of the forest to wander around and terrorise the inhabitants of the region. The most formidable of all these beasts was the Dragon, a carnivorous monster, half eagle and half lion, which regularly visited, swooping low over the marsh, preying upon the villager’s cattle.

The Dragon was a huge beast, at least fifty foot long from head to tail, with an even greater wingspan. Its scales glistened like fiery coals in the dying rays of the sun as it flew over the marsh in search of its next victim. The sight of this winged beast struck terror into the hearts of the villagers, who could do nothing to stop its torments.

Robert was lucky at first, as his forge fire seemed to keep the beast away from his livestock. But his neighbours were not so lucky. Night after night, the terrifying beast slowly picked off the villager’s cattle, one by one. At first Robert ignored the plight of his fellow villagers – until one fateful evening when the Dragon eventually overcame its fear of Robert’s raging fire, swooped down from the heavens and snatched his prize ox. That night, Robert Byrch decided that ‘enough was enough’ and hatched a plot to put an end to the torment.

He fashioned a stout iron cage, large enough to hold him and a few basic supplies, and covered it with a cow hide. He also made a light, shortened double edged sword, which could easily be wielded against his foe through the cage bars.

Many days passed before the Dragon was seen again, spiralling high in the sky above the marsh.  Robert climbed inside his special cage and waited. By his instruction, all the other livestock had been removed to the safety of the trees, making Robert’s ‘cow’ cage an irresistible target for the ravenous beast.

The Dragon swooped and its talons sank into the cow hide, gripping the cage in the process.  With one beat of its enormous wings the scaled monstrosity was airborne, and with it, Robert in his cage.

With all his might Robert plunged his sword into the Dragons leathery underbelly. The beast screamed and writhed in agony as blood spurted out from the gaping wound. Robert prepared to stab the beast again when suddenly he felt the beast momentarily loosen its grip on the cage. Realising his mistake, Robert looked down in panic, seeing for the first time exactly how high up the beast had climbed in mere seconds. Far below him, the meandering river and lush forest sped past at a dizzying speed.Suddenly, the beast faltered and began spiralling down towards the ground.

In desperation Robert attempted to cover the beast’s wound in order to stem the flow of blood. With all his might, he pulled together the beasts leathery scales and held them together to prevent the beast from bleeding out. Slowly but surely, the Dragon limped home to it’s lair on the Runcorn side of the Mersey, near the promontory that was destined to be called Rock Savage.

The Dragon landed safely and Robert lashed out again, delivering a fatal blow in the beasts crimson underbelly. When he felt it safe to do so, he climbed out of the cage and finished the beast off, turning the banks and the river red with the slaughter.

He returned home, triumphant, with the beasts head as a trophy. He was received by his fellow villagers as a hero and a saviour, and news quickly spread throughout the land of his heroic deed. The news soon reached the Kings ears, who issued a decree stating that Robert should now be called ‘Robert the Bold’. As a reward, the king granted him a tract of land near Cuerdley, where Robert founded the Bold family. This, as legend will have it, is how the township of Bold gained its name. The Bold family remained in the area for many centuries and became one of the wealthiest families in the area.

Although the story is a legend, there are some curious clues which appear to support its authenticity.

The Bold family are one of the oldest families in the country. Although it isn’t possible to find direct evidence to link anyone named Robert Byrch to the family, the lineage can be traced back to just before the Dark ages.

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Seal of the Barons of Halton

The Bold family’s crest depicted a dragon, an image which was also used by the feudal Welsh, who were mortal enemies of the English. If there was nothing at all to the story, then why would the family use a crest which would appear to offer allegiance to their sworn enemies?  In support of the Bold family crest, a Griffin or Dragon symbol was also used on the seals of the Barons of Halton, again a strong connection between the Dragon legend and the area.

There is, however, one final twist in the saga.  In the church at Farnworth, a ‘skin’ which had hung over the Bold family pew for centuries fell to the ground in 1870. This dusty relic was examined and found to be the untanned hide of a cow, which bore strange claw like marks over its surface. Could this have been the same hide that legend says Robert used to conceal his Dragon slaying cage?

Sources

Old Widnes and its Neighbourhood – Charles Poole
Traditions and Customs of Cheshire – Christina Hole
A History of Widnes – G.E.Diggle

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