Is it possible that dragons might once have lived? It sounds absolutely bizarre. But, what if there is some degree of reality to the old tales. Cryptozoologist Richard Freeman has pursued this issue for a long time, as you'll see. A fascinating story of nothing less than a real-life dragon can be found in the pages of Charles Igglesden’s 1906 book, A Saunter Through Kent With Pen & Pencil. Kent being a county in southern England. Of a dragon reportedly seen in Cranbrook, Kent, centuries earlier, Igglesden wrote: “The magnificently wooded park of a hundred and fifty acres is richly watered by a huge lake made in 1812 and a smaller one within the grounds, while further west is an old mill pond that rejoices in a curious legend. It is an old one and the subject of it is very ancient indeed and as rare as it is horrible.” He continued that nothing less than a flying dragon was said to haunt the pond but that “on certain – or uncertain – nights of the year it wings its flight over the park and pays a visit to the big lake yonder. But he always returns to the Mill Pond and it is said to pay special attention of a vicious kind to young men and women who have jilted their lovers. A legend with a moral is this. But a winged dragon! A dragon of the ordinary kind is bad enough. But a flying dragon! Augh!”
Igglesden had more to add to the story: “It is a Mr. Tomlin’s opinion that there is stronger evidence of the existence of this dragon than of most of his kind and of his fires gone out in the closing years of the last century. Nothing short of this monster’s malign influence could account for the curious fact that, till the coming of Mr. Tomlin’s eldest daughter, no child had been born at Angley Park for upwards of a hundred years.” Over the years, numerous monster-seekers have flocked to the specific area in question – in hopes of encountering the dragon. Its presence is far less today, however, than it was in centuries past. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that in December 1997, a local policeman, on duty during the early hours of a chilly, windy, Saturday morning, caught a brief sight of a “bloody great bird, about twenty feet across,” in the skies of Cranbrook. The ancient dragon crossing the night sky? Now, onto another fascinating story that just might suggest dragon's really did live. Now, to another case.
Printed in 1614 by John Trundle of London is a pamphlet with the extraordinarily long title of True and Wonderful, A DISCOURSE Relating A STRANGE AND MONSTROUS SERPENT OR DRAGON Lately Discoyered and yet living to the great Annoyance and divers Slaughters both Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent Poyson. In Sussex, two Miles from Horsam, in a Woode called St. Leonards Forrest, and thirtie Miles from London, this present Month of August, 1614. It tells the strange, 17th century story of a terrible monster that instilled fear in the people of the English town of Horsham and reads as follows, in quaint, old English style: “In Sussex, there is a pretty market-town called Horsham, near unto it a forest, called St. Leonards forest, and there, in a vast and unfrequented place, heathy, vaulty, full of unwholesome shades, and overgrown hollows, where this serpent is thought to be bred ; but, wheresoever bred, certain and too true it is that there it yet lives.
“Within three or four miles compass are its usual haunts, oftentimes at a place called Faygate, and it hath been seen within half a mile of Horsham, a wonder, no doubt, most terrible and noisome to the inhabitants thereabouts. There is always in his track or path left a glutinous and slimy matter (as by a small similitude we may perceive in a snail’s) which is very corrupt and offensive to the scent, insomuch that they perceive the air to be putrified withal, which must needs be very dangerous. For though the corruption of it cannot strike the outward part of a man, unless heated into his blood, yet by receiving it in at any of our breathing organs (the mouth or nose) it is by authority of all authors, writing in that kind, mortal and deadly, as one thus saith : Noxia serpentum est admixto sanguine pestis. The serpent, or dragon, as some call it, is reputed to be nine feet, or rather more, in length, and shaped almost in the form of an axletree of a cart, a quantity of thickness in the midst, and somewhat smaller at both ends.
"The former part, which he shoots forth as a neck, is supposed to be an ell long, with a white ring, as it were, of scales about it. The scales along his back seem to be blackish, and so much as is discovered under his belly appeareth to be red; for I speak of no nearer description than of a reasonable occular distance. “For coming too near it hath already been too dearly paid for, as you shall hear hereafter. It is likewise discovered to have large feet, but the eye may be there deceived ; for some suppose that serpents have no feet, but glide upon certain ribs and scales, which both defend them from the upper part of their throat unto the lower part of their belly, and also cause them to move much the faster.
“For so this doth, and rids way, as we call it as fast as a man can run. He is of countenance very proud, and, at the sight or hearing of men or cattle, will raise his neck upright, and seem to listen and look about, with arrogancy. There are likewise on either side of him discovered two great bunches so big as a large foot-ball, and, as some think, will in time grow to wings ; but God, I hope, will defend the poor people in the neighbourhood, that he shall be destroyed before he grow so fledged. He will cast his venom about four rod from him, as by woeful experience it was proved on the bodies of a man and woman coming that way, who afterwards were found dead, being poisoned and very much swelled, but not preyed upon.
“Likewise a man going to chase it and, as he imagined, to destroy it, with two mastiff dogs, as yet not knowing the great danger of it, his dogs were both killed, and he himself glad to return with haste to preserve his own life. Yet this is to be noted, that the dogs were not preyed upon, but slain and left whole; for his food is thought to be, for the most part, in a cony- warren, (rabbit warren) which he much frequents, and it is found much scanted and impaired in the increase it had wont to afford. These persons, whose names are hereunder printed, have seen this serpent, beside divers others, as the carrier of Horsham, who lieth at the White Horse, in South wark, and who can certify the truth of all that has been here related.” JOHN STEELE. CHRISTOPHER HOLDER. And a Widow Woman dwelling near Faygate."
For three years Richard Freeman worked as Head of Reptiles at Twycross Zoo, England and, for several years, was Zoological Director of one of the world’s premier cryptozoological investigation groups: namely, the Center for Fortean Zoology. And while Freeman has a passion for all aspects of cryptozoolgy, it is the dragon that fascinates him most of all. “I started my career as a zoologist – so I had a grounded training,” says Freeman. “But cryptozoology was my passion. Now, I have had a particular passion – an obsession, I suppose – for years with dragons. But there was something that always puzzled me: no-one had ever thought, for more than a hundred years, to publish a definitive, non-fiction book on the subject. And as I am a qualified zoologist, I thought: why not me?” Why not, indeed? In fact, that is precisely what Freeman did in his book, Dragons: More Than A Myth? I asked Freeman about his theories and discoveries with regard to dragons. He replied: “Well, that’s a bit difficult to answer because there are several things going on. It’s important to note that I’ve traveled the world pursuing these creatures – the Gambia, Mongolia, Thailand, and right here in England with some of the old legends from past centuries. And of one thing I can be certain: there isn’t just one answer to the question of what dragons are or what they may be.”
Freeman continued: “There are many creatures that have become linked to the lore and legend of what today we perceive and view as dragons, and some of these creatures are distinctly different to each other. But that should not take away from the fact that dragons are a real phenomenon.” On this latter point, Freeman elaborates: “I am absolutely certain, having reviewed many ancient reports of dragon activity, that many sightings – perhaps two or three hundred years ago and probably further back – were genuine encounters, but where the witnesses were seeing what I believe to have been huge snakes, giant crocodiles, and the Australian ‘monster lizard’ Megalania.” Freeman makes a noteworthy, and thought-provoking, point: “Any mention of dragons always conjures up images of fire-breathing monsters, and there are definitely reports that fall into that group. But, when you look into many of the earliest, ancient legends, you find that the dragon is more often associated with water. So, I have a theory that some of the better lake monster accounts from centuries ago may well have influenced dragon tales.”
On this point, he adds: “Personally, I also believe that some classic tales of dragons in England in Medieval times, and tales of beasts such as the Lambton Worm, probably have their origins in lake monster accounts, giant eels, etc., that have then mutated into tales of dragons on the loose. But the important point is that this shouldn’t detract from the fact that people did see something.” I asked him: “You mean that the ancients were seeing lake monsters and, having been exposed to dragon legends, believed them to be – or interpreted them as – dragons, too?” “Exactly,” Freeman replied. Of course, the biggest question of all was: are there creatures still living today that Freeman believes have helped perpetuate the image of the dragon? He is certain there are: “I would pretty much stake my life on the fact that Megalania still exists – or did until very recently – in the large forests of Australia, and that also roamed New Guinea. This was a huge, killer-beast; a massive monitor lizard that exceeded thirty feet in length. In literal terms, this was a classic dragon-type animal.”
I questioned Freeman about his research into an animal known as the Naga of Thailand that he believes is responsible for some dragon tales. He told me: “There is no excuse for not getting out into the field and doing firsthand investigations; none at all. In fact, it’s vital. I have no time for the armchair theorist. And one of the experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life was traveling to Thailand with the Discovery Channel in 2000, where we chased giant snakes – the Naga – in the caves and tunnels that exist deep below Thailand. “It’s very easy to see why the inhabitants in times past considered them to be dragons. The Naga is apparently a large snake, a very large one – maybe in the order of literally tens of feet in length, oil-drum-sized bodies, and definitely big enough to take a whole man.” And similar accounts abound elsewhere, too: “There have come reports from the Congo of an animal known as Mokele-mbembe. Again, it has cross-over qualities with dragon legends, but I’m sure that it will be shown in time to be some sort of giant monitor lizard, too.”
But what of the definitive, fire-breathing dragons of legend: does, or did, such a creature exist? Freeman makes a very intriguing observation: “Back in 1979 Peter Dickinson wrote a book that was titled The Flight of Dragons. Dickinson had come up with this idea – an excellent theory, in fact – that real-life dragons did exist and that they were the descendants of dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Dickinson suggested that these animals developed large, expanded stomachs that would fill with hydrogen gas, which would come from a combination of hydrochloric acid found in the juices of the digestive system that would then mix with calcium found in the bones of their prey. “Then, from there, the hydrogen – a lighter-than-air gas – allowed these creatures to take to the skies and then control their flight by burning off the excess gas in the form of flame. Anyone seeing this would be seeing the closest thing to the image of the dragon that we all know and love. Dickinson’s theory is an excellent one, and may well be a perfect explanation for sightings of real dragons – in times past, and perhaps today, I believe.” I leave the final word to Freeman: “The dragon has its teeth and claws deep into the collective psyche of mankind, and it’s not about to let go. Our most ancient fear still stalks the earth today. Beware: this is no fairytale. When your parents told you that there were no such things as dragons, they lied!”
One final thing: when I first went to Puerto Rico - to seek out the Chupacabra - with the SyFy Channel's Proof Positive show, me and monster-hunter Jon Downes came across a painting of what looked like a cross between a Chupacabra and a dragon. You can see the green, winged image with me and Jon (above) beside it! There is an intriguing story behind this: only a few months earlier, something was seen by a local farmer that looked half-dragon and half-Chupacabra. And, that's what led to the creation of that imagery above. It shows the cover of one of my many diaries: this one of that dragon-type thing.