Here There Were Dragons . . . and a ghost story challenge!


Being involved in the publishing of Hauntings has been a great experience. It is the first Historical Writers Forum anthology, and I hope there will be many more! At first, I wasn’t quite sure what I thought of the idea of writing a ghost story. It was not something I had ever considered, but it turned out to be such fun. 

My guest today, Kate Jewell, also wrote a short story for Hauntings – her first published book – congratulations, Kate! Her story has already been mentioned as a favorite by one reviewer, and I think my readers will love it too. I am happy to welcome Kate to the blog today to talk more about her story, Here There Were Dragons.

~ Samantha


Here There Were Dragons 

Rising to the Hauntings challenge, becoming immersed in the mythical culture of Somerset, and going in search of a ghost.

Guest Post by Kate Jewell

Last November, (goodness, was it eleven months ago?), apart from getting panicky about packing up for my move from Leicestershire down to temporary accommodation with my daughter in Somerset, I was participating in a small critique group of writers. One evening I settled down to respond to various Messenger posts, one from Paula Lofting. Expecting to continue our previous day’s discussion on authorial voice, imagine my surprise when the conversation went like this:

Paula: I have something to ask you.
Me: Yes?
Paula: How would you like to join a bunch of us in writing an anthology of ghost stories for next year’s Halloween and have it published in a compilation?
Me: Sounds good. Tell me more.
Paula: Well, it’s me, Sharon Bennett Connolly, Samantha Wilcoxson, Lynn Dawson and Stephanie Churchill and we hope to enlist a few others. 10,000 story to be published for Halloween.
Me: 10,000 stories or 10,000 words? (grinning emoticon)
Paula: words lol
Me: Anything goes? Historical though, I presume.
Paula: Yes, but anything goes. I think probably we write in the period we usually would write, but also you might have an idea that’s local to you.
Me: Something West Country, then. My new area.

Longish pause while I digested this unexpected offer. Why on earth would these successful published authors want inexperienced newbie on their project? Well, it couldn’t be any more stressful than moving house? Could it?

Me, diving into unknown territory: Count me in!

A few days later, it finally sank in. A story up to 10,000 words – they wanted me…ME…to write 10,000 words – two chapters worth – in under twelve months – with a proper beginning, middle and end. The only other short story I had ever written had been 3,500 words and had taken me ages. And what on earth was I going to write about? Historical fiction, yes. But ghost stories? Definitely not my thing.

Inspiration finally struck on a miserable, wet, end-of-December day. Desperate to get out after months of lock down, we took a family excursion to Castle Neroche Forest on the edge of the Blackdown Hills. As we walked through this Forestry Commission mixed woodland, I was mesmerised by the lichen and moss-covered trees swathed in dripping ivy. Even in winter the terrain was stunning; high banks and deep valleys, steep tracks meandering into the distance, the sound of trickling water and two dragon heads carved into the remains of a fallen tree.

Carved wooden dragons face it out across the path

An information board told of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle built on the remnants of an old Iron Age Hill Fort, the motte tower overlooking the vast Taunton Vale, and I began to imagine a ghostly encounter under the trees beneath castle ramparts. Only what I scribbled down wasn’t making sense. I couldn’t work out what the ghost’s history was and who the apparition would choose to haunt. And what were those dragons doing in the forest? I needed research; that addiction that sends me chasing after ever-expanding threads that are crying out to be followed into a tangle of facts, dead ends and improbabilities. Surpassing himself, the lovely Mr Google took me by the hand and directed me towards a wealth of information, mostly in academic papers and land surveys.

The original Iron Age hill fort was constructed around 700BCE on a promontory at the northern edge of the Blackdown Hills. The natural defences of the 150ft escarpment were augmented by earth banks creating a secure enclosure. During the Roman occupation, the site was enlarged as a military camp in the campaign against rebel tribes but fell out of use after the Romans left Britain. In 1067 William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Robert, Count of Mortain, took advantage of the ancient earth works and built a motte-and-bailey castle. Preferring his castle at Montacute, he abandoned Castle Neroche 20 years later.

Castle Neroche: plan of site from Rev Warre’s paper, 1854
Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library

It wasn’t until around 1138, during the civil war, known as the Anarchy, between King Steven and his cousin, the empress Matilda, that Castle Neroche was briefly refortified. The motte ditch was enlarged, and the wooden keep was replaced by a small stone tower, surrounded by a defensive wall. By 1147, the conflict was petering out and the need for a fortress guarding against incursions by Matilda’s supporters from the west diminished. By the mid 13th century, the castle was in a ruinous state, the stone no doubt plundered for local building. The surrounding land was a royal forest until 1633.

Acquired by the Forestry Commission in 1947, the immediate area to the north and east of the castle is now managed commercial mixed woodland as part of long-term proposals to restrict conifers to the poorer soils and expand broadleaf trees with dedicated woodland pasture and permanent open spaces.

Mysterious paths and steep steps in Castle Neroche Forest

Beyond the carpark and hidden behind the tree-clad southern ramparts, is Castle Neroche Farm. One of the forest paths, leading to the viewpoint on the motte, skirts a rough hedge and a fence. Through the bushes you can glimpse farm buildings and the gable end of a modest farmhouse, built in the outer bailey enclosure in the early 1830s. Could this be the venue for my story? What would an early Victorian farmstead be like? What about the family that lived there? Why would the place be ‘haunted’? Something to do with the 12th century castle perhaps.

Searching for images of old farming practices, I stumbled across a series of detailed papers about farming in the 19th century presented to the Devonshire Association at the begin of the 1920s. There were meticulous descriptions of the Victorian farmhouse exterior arrangement and internal organisation, based on studies of several old Devon ‘bartons’, or larger farms. Being in south west Somerset, my farmhouse couldn’t have differed greatly from those in the adjacent county of east Devon. I had struck gold; I could now visualise the farming family living amongst the remnants of this old castle, though my imaginary farmhouse bore little resemblance to the real one. I visualised my farmer, his wife, two older sons, a 15-year-old daughter and two much younger boys; toyed with names. Little Tommy for the youngest and, for the daughter, Annie, my main character.

The farmhouse at Castle Neroche Farm built c.1833 © Roger Cornfoot 2009

One research paper, presented to the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society in 1854, was a detailed survey of the Castle Neroche site by the Rev F Warre. His enthusiasm for his subject is clear, and he ends with an anecdotal twist; a tale of treasure seekers digging for money in the escarpment and meeting a gruesome end. This sent me down another rabbit hole of research, but the Reverend Warre proved elusive. I found little about him apart from Census records and the odd mention in the journals of the aforementioned society, of which he was a founding member in1849, being their General Secretary until 1867. He was the vicar of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, in Bishops Lydeard, Somerset from 1836. He obviously had a great interest in the area’s history, and I could imagine him being splendid company with many tales to tell. Here was someone I might be able to use in my story.

None of this research explained why there were those two opposing dragon heads in the forest.

Dragon on the west side of the main path

Following up on the story at the end of Rev Warre’s paper, and knowing there are many mythical tales of buried treasure in the West Country, I went in search of Somerset legends. To my delight I found numerous mentions of dragons. I came across a fantastic book by Brian Wright specifically on Somerset Dragons, not only retelling mythical tales but presenting a factual record of dragon ‘portraits’ decorating churches in stained glass and carvings, public house signs, decorating old and modern buildings, in street art and as the centre piece of the Somerset county coat of arms. Somerset is awash with dragons; Brian Wright tells us. “Among the counties of England, Scotland and Wales, Somerset seems to have more dragon legends and various items of ‘evidence’ than most other counties…. Only Yorkshire exceeds its stories by two, but with a lot less ‘evidence’.” (Somerset Dragons, Tempus Publishing 2002). And in this book is an account of the drowning of the Castle Neroche dragon. There were more tales lurking on the World Wide Web, but to combine the Rev Warre’s anecdote with Brian Wright’s story would give me a foundation on which to build.

At last I had found a historical setting: the motte-and-bailey castle in 1148 and Castle Neroche Farm 700years later, a protagonist: the farmer’s teenage daughter, and a supporting character: the Reverend Francis Warre. I also had a kind of antagonist: a dragon.

All I needed now was the ‘ghost’ and a narrative to weave it all together.

Further reading and essential if you want to go dragon spotting in Somerset:

Somerset Dragons, Brian Wright, Tempus Publishing, Stroud UK, 2002


Find out how Kate brought this fascinating history together into a thrilling ghost story in Hauntings – available now on Amazon!


Chilling Tales that will take you through a labyrinth of historical horror.

You will encounter a tormented Roman general.

A Norse woman who must confront her terrifying destiny.

Meet a troubled Saxon brother, searching for his twin’s murderer.

A young nurse tries to solve the mysteries of an asylum for the insane.

Down the passages of time, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn wander through a haunted garden and elsewhere, a lost slave girl is the soul survivor of a mass slaughter.

These are just a few of the eerie tales which ensure that Hauntings is not for the faint-hearted.

Hauntings is available in paperback and for Kindle
worldwide on Amazon.

Connect with Kate

Kate Jewell was brought up in Portsmouth and educated at boarding school in Bournemouth, both on the English south coast. An avid reader, Kate was grabbed by historical fiction at an early age, devouring Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth late into the night, with the aid of a torch under the bedcovers in the school dorm. A lifelong passion for the 15th and 16th century was ignited by a history teacher who, on hearing complaints about having to do more ‘boring Napoleonic battles’, suggested Kate joined an archaeology summer camp in Southampton, run by medievalist and university professor Colin Platt. Fascinating stuff for a 16-year-old.

Unsuccessfully applying to Brighton Art School, she ended up miles from the sea in Coventry, her pin-in-the-list second choice, where she graduated in Graphic Design. She has worked in advertising, as a book designer for a children’s book publisher, in a busy Local Government graphic design studio, and as a Creative Arts lecturer in Further Education. After retiring from her proper jobs, she worked part time in a Register Office doing weddings and registering births and deaths. After over thirty years in the East Midlands, she has finally escaped from landlocked Leicestershire to pastures new in West Dorset; a welcome return to the south with the Jurassic Coast only 12 miles away. Her elder daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons live nearby in Somerset. Her younger daughter and her partner are renovating a Provençal farmhouse, so keeping up with her two young “French” granddaughters has forced Kate to become expert in Zooming! When not writing, she can be found pottering in the garden, painting and drawing in her studio, or exploring the countryside with her camera.

Kate’s short story, The Daisy Fisher, set in 18th century Cornwall, won the 2019 Historic Writers Association/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Competition, and her long-running series of articles on the Dorothy Dunnett book cover art is published in Whispering Gallery, the society’s journal. She has been working on a fiction project, following a group of adventurers through the turbulent transition from the Plantagenets to the Tudors. This has been going on for so many years Kate is amazed her characters haven’t used her procrastination an excuse to abandon their weapons and go in search of a quite retirement.

Here there were Dragons, Kate’s first foray into spooky fiction, is a ghost story with a difference, a dual era tale with a 700-year time gap. It seems as if the short story format is king at the moment!

Connect with Kate on Facebook and Twitter.

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