The Lambton Worm and Penshaw Hill
Around the time of the crusades (in some accounts) in the area around the river Wear, there is a tale told about a fearsome dragon, which terrorised the area and was dispatched with cunning by a brave warrior.
John Lambton, the young heir to Lambton Hall, was fishing on the river Wear one Sunday morning, while all the other villagers and castle residents were at mass in Brugeford Chapel. After a couple of hours of catching nothing, his hook was caught by something powerful and quick, thinking that he had hooked a great fish he set about landing the catch. He toiled for what seemed an age, and finally pulled his prize on the sandy bank.
He had caught a black worm like creature, which was only small, but twisted and coiled with great power. In appearance the creature was completely black, with the head of a salamander and needle sharp teeth. It seemed to secrete a sticky slime, and had nine holes along each side of its mouth. Cursing, he wondered what to do with the creature when an old man appeared from behind him, he asked the young Lambton what he had caught, and looking at the creature the old man crossed himself. He warned Lambton not to throw the creature back into the river. “It bodes no good for you but you must not cast it back into the river, you must keep it and do with it what you will.” At this the old man walked away disappearing as quickly as he had appeared.
John Lambton picked up the creature and put it into his catch basket, walking home he mulled over the stranger’s words and looked again at the hideous thing lying in his basket. A feeling of unease swept over him and he threw the catch into an ancient well on the road back to the hall (the well was forever after known as Worms Well).
The years passed and John Lambton went off to the crusades, with every passing year the worm grew in strength in its deep dark hole. The well became unusable as the water became poisoned, strange venomous vapours were seen rising out of the well, and village gossip surmised that the well had been cursed, and that something unworldly lived in its depths. One morning the village gossip was answered, during the night the worm, now in full maturity, had slipped out of the well and wrapped itself three times around a rocky island in the middle of the river, a trail of black slime outlined its path from the well.
The morning was a hive of activity as the news spread throughout the village and to neighbouring farms. Those brave enough went as close as they dared to get a glimpse of the creature. The dragon had no legs or wings, but a thick muscled body that rippled as it moved. Its head was large and its gaping maw bristled with razor sharp teeth, venomous vapours trailed from its nostrils and mouth as it breathed.
]For a short time the dragon did nothing, during the day it stayed in mid stream and at night it came back to land and coiled itself three times around a nearby hill, leaving spiral patterns in the soft earth. This lull was short lived, for soon the beast became hungry and started to rampage around the countryside, always returning to its hill or Worms Rock in the river Wear. Depending on the account, the hill the worm returned to was either Penshaw Hill or, the aptly named Worm Hill in nearby Fatfield.
It took small lambs and sheep and ate them whole, and it tore open cows udders with its razor teeth to get at the milk, which it could smell from miles away.
The dragon became bolder and bolder, some brave villagers tried to kill the beast but where crushed and drowned in the river, or torn to pieces with its razor fangs.
Eventually the dragon came to Lambton Hall, where the lord lived on his own. Fortunately the local residents rallied at the hall, and were ready for its coming. They filled a large stone trough with warm milk from the nine kye of the byre. The dragon came to the hall gates but was distracted by the smell of the milk. It plunged into the trough and drained it dry, thus sated the dragon returned to its river abode.
Thus began a ritual that was not to be abated for seven years. The dragon stopped its roaming in the village and left the cows and the sheep alone. It only ventured up the lane to the hall for its daily offering of milk. As the years passed the trail became marked by a path of dark slime and the villagers returned to the village in some semblance of normality. Every so often people from far and wide would come to kill the dragon but would always meet the same fate as those early villagers.
After seven years had passed, John Lambton returned from the crusades a powerful and seasoned knight. When he heard of the plight of his village he devised plan to kill the beast. He went to the wise woman who lived in Brugeford to gain her advice. She told him that the plight of the village was his fault and that it was his duty to remedy the situation: You and you alone can kill the worm, go to the blacksmith, and have a suit of armour wrought with razor sharp spear heads studded throughout its surface. Then go to the worm’s rock and await its arrival. But mark my words well, if you slay the beast you must put to death the first thing that crosses your path as you pass the threshold of Lambton Hall. If you do not do this then three times three generations of Lambtons will not die in their beds.
John listened to the advice and swore an oath to complete it. He then went to the local blacksmith and had him forge a suit of armour embedded in double-edged spikes, and spent the night in the local chapel.
During the next day John Lambton, clad in the specially made armour engaged in battle with the dragon in midstream. Every time the dragon tried to embrace him it cut itself to ribbons on the spikes, so that pieces of its flesh were sliced off and floated down the river on a crimson tide. Eventually the worm grew so weak that he could despatch it with one heavy sword blow to its head.
He then let out three blasts on his bugle to tell of his victory, and as a signal for the servants to release his favourite hound from the house to complete his vow. Unfortunately the servants forgot in the commotion and joy, and as John passed over the threshold of the hall his father rushed out to greet him. Dismayed John blew another blast on his horn and the servants released the hound, which John killed with one sweeping blow from his sword. But it was too late, the vow was broken and for generations after none of the Lambtons died in their beds. It is said that the last one died while crossing over Brugeford Bridge over a hundred and forty years ago.
One of the hills the worm is said to have frequented is actually the site of the only triple rampart, Iron Age hill fort known in the North of England. The spiral patterns or furrows suggested by the legend as being formed by the worm coiling itself thrice around the hill, could in fact be the triple ramparts of the hill fort. The hill is also known for the prominent landmark of Penhsaw Monument, a folly based on a Greek temple.
The Lambton Worm – Traditional Folksong Based on the Legend
One Sunday morn young Lambton
Went a-fishin’ in the Wear;
He catched a fish upon his heuk,
He thowt leuk’t varry queer,
But whatt’na kind of fish it was
Young Lambton couldna tell.
He waddna fash to carry hyem,
So he hoyed it in a well.
Whisht! lads, haad ya gobs,
Aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad ya gobs,
An aa’ll tell ye ‘boot the worm.
Noo Lambton felt inclined to gan
An’ fight in foreign wars.
He joined a troop o’ Knights
That cared for neither wounds nor scars,
An’ off he went to Palestine
Where queer things befel,
An’ varry seun forgot aboot
The queer worm in the well.
But the worm got fat an’ graad an’ graad,
An’ graad an aaful size;
With greet big teeth, and greet big mooth,
An’ greet big goggley eyes.
An’ when at neets he craaled ‘oot
To pick up bits o’ news,
If he felt dry upon the road,
He milked a dozen coos.
This feorful worm wad often feed
On calves an’ lambs an’ sheep
An’ swally little bairns alive
When they laid doon to sleep.
An’ when he’d eaten aall he cud
An’ he had had his fill,
He craaled away an’ lapped his tail
Seven times roond Pensher Hill.
The news of this most aaful worm
An’ his queer gannins on,
Seun crossed the seas, gat to the ears
Of brave an’ bowld Sir John.
So hyem he cam an’ catched the beast
An’ cut ‘im in three halves,
An’ that seun stopped him eatin’ bairns
An’ sheep an’ lambs and calves.
So noo ye knaa hoo aall the folks
On byeth sides of the Wear
Lost lots o’ sheep an’ lots o’ sleep
An’ lived in mortal feor.
So let’s hev one to brave Sir John
That kept the bairns frae harm,
Saved coos an’ calves by myekin’ halves
O’ the famis Lambton Worm.
Noo lads, Aa’ll haad me gob,
That’s aall Aa knaa aboot the story
Of Sir John’s clivvor job
Wi’ the aaful Lambton Worm.