Thursday, 13 January 2022

Here be dragons! - by Ally Sherrick

I do like a good dragon! The fearsome, treasure-loving Smaug in The Hobbit has got to be one of the best ever. His creator, the celebrated writer and Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon, J.R.R. Tolkien modelled him on the vengeful, treasure-hoarding dragon in the epic Old English poem, Beowulf which the legendary monster-slayer and hero must face in the final, epic battle of his life.

The fire-breathing Smaug from ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R Tokien,
in an illustration by the author. Can you spot Tolkien’s hobbit hero,
Bilbo Baggins bravely doffing his cap to him?
(Authors own photo of postcard)

My own wartime adventure, The Buried Crown has a dragon or two in it too. The book tells the story of two brave children – London evacuee, George Penny and German Jewish refugee, Kitty Regenbogen – who get caught up in a desperate race against time to find and rescue a priceless piece of Anglo-Saxon treasure before a bunch of Nazi treasure-thieves can get their hands on it in a bid to change the course of the war.


It was inspired by the discovery of the now famous Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo Ship Burial treasure in the summer of 1939, a few weeks before the outbreak of war. Excavating at a site just outside the town of Woodbridge in Suffolk, archaeologists unearthed the remains of what turned out to be an early 7th century long-ship buried deep beneath the largest of a series of ancient burial mounds belonging to local woman, Edith Pretty.  

The archaeological excavation of the largest burial mound at Sutton Hoo
revealed the impression of a ghostly ship the length
of two double-decker buses
(Author’s own photo of postcard)

Though the timbers of the ship itself had rotted way to leave nothing but a ghostly imprint and lines of rusty rivets in the soil, a wooden shelter inside contained goods which ranged from humble domestic objects such as cups, bowls and spoons, to weaponry and gorgeous items of treasure including a purse filled with gold coins, a great golden belt buckle and a magnificent helmet. At the time it was described as the British equivalent of the celebrated Tutankhamun discovery and remains one of the richest archaeological finds in Northern Europe.

Following decades of research by archaeologists and historians, the most widely-held belief today is that the ship was the burial site of the pagan ruler, Redwald, King of the East Angles and High King of Britain and that the goods it contained were intended for use by the king in the afterlife.

One of the many fascinating things about the treasure is the appearance on some of the most precious items, including the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, shield and sword-belt, of dragons. These are very stylised and not at all like the modern idea of dragons as depicted in the movie version of The Hobbit and HBO’s Game of Thrones. But, if you know how to look, they will reveal themselves to you, emerging as creatures with red garnet eyes, beak-like faces and wings either tucked along the length of their body or spread wide, as in the case of the helmet, to form the eyebrows of its awe-inspiring, mask-like face. They are also a part of the celebrated animal interlacing – a trademark feature of much Anglo-Saxon art – and of which the priceless Sutton Hoo belt buckle is a stunning example.


Shield boss – Replica of the boss from the king’s shield ringed
by a circle of ‘beaked’ dragons heads with red garnet eyes
(Author’s own photo)

Gold and garnet dragon - This highly stylised dragon is one of the shield
mounts and features a fearsome set of spiked jaw, a red garnet eye
and a line of ‘winglets’ fringing both sides of its body.
(Author’s own photo)

Replica of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet -
Can you spot the dragons?
(Author’s own photo)

The Anglo-Saxons loved – or perhaps I should say lived in dread – of dragons. They believed there were two types. ‘Drakes’, who breathed fire and could fly like Tolkein’s Smaug, and wingless ‘wyrms’ who slithered across the landscape like giant reptiles. The creatures lived inside burial mounds like the ones King Redwald’s ship was discovered beneath at Sutton Hoo, and guarded the treasure buried inside them, exacting the most dreadful revenge on anyone who dared try and steal it away from them.


Beware a burial mound like this one at Sutton Hoo – it might be the home of a dragon!
(Photo used by kind permission of The National Trust)

This idea of an ancient and angry treasure-guardian, so powerfully depicted in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, provided the inspiration for my own ‘story within a story’ in The Buried Crown. Known as The Legend of the Dragon-Headed Crown, it became the ‘foundation myth’ for the magic which leaks into the world of my heroes, George and Kitty as the story progresses.

And the dragons depicted on the treasures at Sutton Hoo – perhaps as protection against thieves? –  gave rise to my own piece of dragon treasure which – spoiler alert! – might just have special powers of its own.

You can visit the real-life treasures found at Sutton Hoo in the Early British Medieval Galleries at the British Museum in London. Or if you can’t make it there in person, check them out on the excellent museum website. And if want to visit the site of the excavations at Sutton Hoo, view the burial mound field and see more exhibits on the treasures and the life and times of the Anglo-Saxons who made and buried them there, why not take a trip to Sutton Hoo itself, now in the property of the National Trust.

Writing prompt

Take a look at dragons in other cultures – either writings or images; historical or modern. How might their depiction inspire you to create a dragon of your own? What might you borrow and what would you discard? What is their purpose, their power, their name? Happy dragon-hunting! 

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017, The Buried Crown and Tudor-Set adventure, The Queen’s Fool. She is published by Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick


Thursday, 6 January 2022

Guest Blog: Did I time travel to the Great Flood of London 1928? by Eve McDonnell

This week we are delighted to introduce our first guest blog post, by longstanding friend of the Time Tunnellers, Eve McDonnell. Eve is the award-winning author of Elsetime, a beautifully written time-travel novel which we all loved. As well as being a writer, Eve is also an artist and designer, and designed the wonderful Time Tunnellers’ logo and banners for us.


Read Eve’s guest post to find out more about her time travelling, her unforgettable characters - Needle and Glory and their pet crow, Magpie - and the true story behind the devastating flood in Elsetime.


And look out for more guest posts from children’s historical fiction writers on the Time Tunnellers blog in the months to come!


Children's author Eve McDonnell

If you had one superpower, what would it be?  

Without question, mine would be the ability to time travel. Sometimes, perhaps when I am on a bustling shopping street or a quiet country lane, I close my eyes for a second and imagine that, when I open them, I will have travelled one hundred years back in time. What would I see? Would the air smell unusual? What sounds would I hear? Would the birds even sing to a different tune? I guess it was this curiosity that led me to one of my favourite pastimes, treasure hunting – searching the pebbles alongside a river or the sea for something sparkling: an old button once part of a queen’s gown, perhaps, or a key to a mythical treasure chest, or a war medal from a hero who saved countless lives. With the help of my imagination, I guess I do time travel – I can see and feel each treasure’s history by simply holding it in the palm of my hand.

It’s no wonder a hobby so rich in possible stories was the inspiration for my children’s novel Elsetime with its tale of a young 1860’s mudlark called Needle, searching the foreshore for treasures he could sell. Glory, a jeweller’s apprentice, sprung to mind too, and I imagined her taking those muddy finds and transforming them into treasures to behold under the eyes of her strict mistress, Mrs Quick. Glory and Mrs Quick had to be from the 1920s, my imagination assured me, but I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen to my new-found friends.

Then I found a newspaper clipping. It told of a real-life tragic event almost lost to history: the Great Flood of London in 1928. At its epicentre was Needle’s haunt – the stretch of foreshore alongside the Tate Gallery (now known as Tate Britain). I needed to know more, and my research began.


Almost a century ago, at the source of the Thames, families enjoyed a snowy Christmas akin to those portrayed in picture-perfect postcards. But, quick as a wink, the snow thawed, sending torrents of water along streams and brooks that fed the Thames. A deluge of rain in the days that followed raised the level of the great river higher and higher as it twisted and turned its way towards the bustling centre of London and out towards the sea.

As Londoners partied away the Twelfth Day of Christmas or snuggled their loved ones into bed in old basement flats, the raging river met its match: a powerful storm in the North Sea. At the turn of the tide, waves swelled higher at the mouth of the Thames than any ever seen before. Seawater tunnelled its way up the river, clashing with the deluge of snowmelt and rainwater. X marked the spot where the river narrowed and its depth deepened following foolish dredging to allow passage to larger ships. Not long after midnight, the embankment walls near the Tate Gallery gave way.


Freezing cold water raced down stone steps and into the homes of poor basement-dwellers, trapping them before they even knew their fate. Muddy water inundated the basement galleries of the Tate Gallery, destroying many fine pieces of art, including several priceless Turner paintings and drawings. Big Ben was surrounded, the Underground submerged. The moat at the Tower of London filled for the first time in nearly a century.

Fourteen souls lost their lives that night and, as my research deepened, so too did my shock and sadness when I read the names listed on that Daily Mirror 1928 newspaper clipping. One name stood out: Mrs Quick – a name I had already created for the owner of the Jewellery Emporium where Glory worked. That was a big gulp moment.

As I stared down at Mrs Quick’s name, it felt like a message from the past. Perhaps, with Mrs Quick’s help, I really did time travel to the night of the 6th of January 1928. Maybe that newspaper clipping was my time machine, my imagination its fuel, and my planned destination would ensure the story of the Great Flood of London in 1928 was finally told.

To when would you time travel?


Eve grew up in Dublin before moving to the beautiful countryside of Wexford where she lives halfway up a hill with her husband, twins, Happy the dog and Fusspot the cat. Eve embarked on a career as an artist and worked in graphic design, brand development and marketing. Having recognised the similarities between a blank canvas and a blank page, Eve’s writing career kicked off following a visit to a fortune-teller who told her to Write! Write! Write! On the rare occasion where her head is not stuck in a children’s story, Eve enjoys facilitating creative writing and crafting workshops, and painting everything from rather grown-up pieces to fun children’s murals.

Eve’s debut novel for 9-12 year olds, ELSETIME, was published in 2020 by Everything With Words and was inspired by a real-life tragic event: The Great Flood of London in 1928. 

Meet mudlark Needle and an impetuous jeweller’s apprentice called Glory; a special crow and a hard-nosed taskmaster; a distinguished inventor and a deadly flood – all living their lives in Inthington Town just a stone’s throw from each other but with many decades between. 

Cover and internal illustrations by Holly Ovenden.

Order a copy of ELSETIME from your local independent bookshop or you can visit The Rocketship Bookshop in the UK or Halfway Up The Stairs in Ireland.

Find out all about Eve on and follow her on Twitter @Eve_Mc_Donnell.





Here be dragons! - by Ally Sherrick

I do like a good dragon! The fearsome, treasure-loving Smaug in The Hobbit has got to be one of the best ever. His creator, the celebrated ...