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The Dragonby dragon

Or the Sunken Church

Published : 16 August 2020

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Or the Sunken Church

Dragonby, (previously known as Conesby Cliff), consists of a single street of houses, and lies on the left hand side of the A1077 road between Scunthorpe and Winterton as you ascend Sawcliffe Hill. Just beyond Dragonby is an ancient rock formation that local legend claims is the remains of a dragon, turned to stone by a wizard, back in the days when wizards roamed about freely, turning things to stone, and performing other such wizardly deeds as required by the knights and kings, etc., for whom they relied upon for gainful employment. But this is not the only legendary claim to the origin of the rocky outcrop.

Abraham de la Pryme (1671–1704), the Yorkshire antiquarian, visited in July 1696 and wrote in his diary:-
The 18th instant, being Saturday, I went to see a place, between Sanclif and Conisby, called the Sunken Church, the tradition concerning which says that there was a church there formerly, but that it sunk in the ground with all the people in it, in the times of popery. But I found it to be only a fable, for that which they shew to be the walls thereof, yet standing, is most manifestly nothing but a natural rock, which lifts itself out of the ground about two yards high, in a continued line, like the wall of a church, etc.

Too many words, skip to the end.


A footnote in Pryme's diary written by Charles Jackson (1809–1882) in 1870, says:-
Sunken Church at Sancliff (sic) yet exists, and is known by that name. The story is that the church and the whole congregation were swallowed up by the earth, but that on one day in the year (the anniversary, it is believed, of that on which the church went down), if one goes early in the morning he may hear the bells ring for Mass. The legend cannot be accounted for. A similar tale exists, I understand, about various other places in Britain and Germany. There has clearly been no church here. The stone is certainly natural. It is not so high now as Pryme reports. The earth has probably washed down the hill and raised the ground about it. There are some marks or furrows on it, which may be very rude carvings, but this is doubtful. As large stones are a rarity thereabouts, and as this is visible at a considerable distance, it may have had heathen rites connected with it, which have given a weird memory to the spot.

In 1900, Henry Preston. F.G.S. (1852–1940), one of the founders of Grantham Museum, wrote :-
In a field on Sawcliffe Farm, in the parish of Roxby-cum-Risby, North Lincolnshire, there is a deposit of uncommon character and singular beauty. It is particularly interesting to the lover of natural objects. Locally it is known as the "Sunken Church". An ancient tradition informs us that it was a church attached to one of the monasteries, and was buried by a landslip; or, according to Abraham de la Pryme, the Yorkshire antiquary, who visited it in 1696, the tradition is that the church sunk in the ground, with all the people in it, in the times of Popery.

Dragonby stone curtain, first illustration

Dragonby stone curtain, first illustration

Both the name and the legends do discredit to this remarkable structure, inasmuch as the visitor who goes with the idea of finding architectural remains, as some justification of the name, is disappointed to find that no such ancient church exists, and that no human agent has ever been at work in connection with the mass of stone which he has come to see. Such disappointment often fails to yield to the new interest which should be awakened by finding a structure of no mean size, beautifully built and fluted by an artist so diminutive as to be often altogether overlooked. In describing this production of the tiny spring which issues near the foot of the hill, I shall discard the present name and venture to rechristen it the "stone curtain", a name more in character both with its appearance and manner of growth.




The stone curtain, then, as will already have been gathered, consists of a mass of calcareous tufa deposited by a petrify spring trickling out of the limestone rocks, as seen in the second illustration. It is a wall-like mass, some ninety feet or more in length, having a varying thickness from fifteen inches to two feet at the top, and a height above ground of nine feet at its highest point. From the higher end where it first leaves the ordinary slope of the hill, there is a gentle fall along the ridge until, about half-way down, a big step of about four feet occurs. Then the ridge continues to descend, until at the lower end it almost comes to the level of the ground again. Undoubtedly the most striking feature about it is a groove two inches wide and one and a quarter inches deep, which runs along the ridge from end to end, and also continues down the step above mentioned. This groove is well shown in the first illustration. At the foot of the hill there is a cattle-trough, into which has been conducted from the top end of the stone curtain a small spring as feeder, and which at once gives a clue to the formation of this interesting piece of Nature's architecture.

Dragonby stone curtain, second illustration

Dragonby stone curtain, second illustration

The foot of the escarpment, which is really part of the Lincolnshire cliff, is formed of the Upper Lias clay, and for ages past this has thrown out carbonated water, which has previously dissolved a considerable amount of limestone from the over-lying beds. Upon entering the atmosphere, some of its carbonic-acid gas (CO²) has escaped, and this liberation of dissolved gas coupled with evaporation has caused the limestone to be released. This has been deposited, and has formed a parasitic hill of considerable size, in which land shells and impressions of leaves are common. The tufa hill extends perhaps seventy or eighty yards on either side of the curtain, and is of considerable thickness — perhaps twenty feet or more, as judged from the natural slope of the escarpment, where the tufa has not accumulated. In process of time the issuing water seems to have gathered itself together and formed a single stream, which, taking a fairly direct line over its own bed, has deposited its tufa in this course. During this building period the water has continued to run along the crest of the builded wall, and the tufa growth has been uniform on either side of the stream. Possibly the uniformity of the upward growth is due to spray and to more rapid evaporation along the edges of the stream. In this manner the sides of the groove have been built up, whilst the overflow of water on either hand has by further evaporation formed the curtain. This structure of stone, broadening out in innumerable folds at the base, affords one of the most interesting sights of the county, and one which every lover of Nature will desire to see preserved in its entirety. Tufaceous deposits are very common wherever springs issue from limestone rocks; but in this particular case a wonderful balance has been maintained between the size of the spring and the building work it has done. A stronger spring might not have balanced the side deposits so well, and probably would not have produced the remarkable gutter along the ridge. A small stream with a high percentage of evaporation is calculated to produce a larger deposit than a strong spring; and this appears to have been the case in the stone curtain.

Travertine bridge, Clermont, in the Auvergne

Travertine bridge, Clermont, in the Auvergne

The precipitated limestone from water often takes most beautiful and fantastic shapes, as in the stalactitic and stalagmitic deposits in the numerous caverns of limestone districts, and in the wonderful travertine bridge at Clermont, in the Auvergne, but never before have we known a stream to keep so constant a course while building up its own monument, on and in which for so many ages it must have disported itself.

Lady Winifride Elwes

Lady Winifride Elwes

TL;DR - Conclusion.


In 1912, Lady Winifride Elwes (1869–1959), the wife of Gervase Elwes (1866–1921), and one time National President of the Catholic Women's League, chose Dragonby as the name for a new settlement of cottages built on the Elwes estate adjacent to the rock formation, to house the families of Catholic workers from the then rapidly expanding iron workings in nearby Scunthorpe. Presumably, Lady Winifride prefered the idea of the "Stone Dragon", over the "Sunken Church" theory. Whether this was because Abraham de la Pryme's 'Popery' reference had offended her Catholic sensibilities, or she just liked dragons, we can only guess.







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