“Hollow Places” by Christopher Hadley

This book wasn’t what I expected it to be. But that’s fine, because it sets out to do one thing while it – deliberately, cunningly – does the opposite.

In St. Mary’s Church, Brent Pelham, in eastern Hertfordshire is the tomb of Piers Shonks, dragon slayer. Yep, dragon slayer.

In Hollow Places, writer Christopher Hadley searches through histories in paper, deerskin, stone, and voice for the truth behind such a legend. He does so methodically and diligently, with a lightness of touch and a sense of humour. It’s a triumph of perseverance, doggedness and the best kind of amateurism.

Before buying it I presumed it was a compendium: a study of place-names (about which I’ve written before) that are derived from folk-lore, and tracing their evolution. It isn’t that: it’s something much narrower but also far, far deeper.

From his wealth of sources, his own travels and conversations, Hadley unpicks the literal truth behind Shonks: who he was, when he lived and died, and exactly what feat of arms his tomb commemorates. Crucially we also learn how the story became a legend, and how such legends grow arms, legs and wings.

We also learn (among many, many other things) about the practicalities of transporting Purbeck marble across southern England in the thirteenth century; the significance of inscriptions found on gravestones, and how the Reformation altered the nature of commemorating the dead. I particularly enjoyed finding out the source of the word “fine” (as in “paying a fine”): from “final concord“. There were a few places I found the going a bit slow but that’s the nature of the quest, I suppose.

However: in uncovering the prose of historical fact, don’t we lose the poetry of legend? Not necessarily. Hadley’s wonderful final chapter performs its own reveal by showing that not only can we have both, but how important it is that we do so. “I am as interested in how we remember history as in what actually happend”, he says, acknowledging that although the events have become overgrown, “it is these fantastical elements that ensure the historical facts are remembered”,

Hollow Place is a story about memory: or more specifically, about remembering over forgetting:

“We will eventually forget our stories if we don’t renew our capacity for wonder.”

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