The Lambton Worm
The story of the Lambton worm is perhaps the most famous of the dragon/worm/wyvern stories that abound in the north of England, alleged to have inspired Bram Stokers final novel “The Lair of the White Worm”. There are many similar stories from the region including the Laidley worm of Bamburgh, the Longwitton Dragon of Northumberland, The Dragon of Loschy wood near Stonegrave, Helmsley, the less well-known Handale (near Loftus) serpent, the Sexhowe dragon and the Sockburn worm which inspired Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” written in Croft in 1855.
The story goes that John Lambton, heir to the Lambton estate, a wayward and careless boy decided that instead of going to church one Sunday, he would go fishing in the nearby river Wear.
John spent hours and hours by the river without any luck, and was about to pack up and go home when he got the first bite of the day. He struggled long and hard with what he thought must be a large and powerful fish, but was sorely disappointed to see what he had reeled in. It was a small, worm like creature, black as night, with needle like teeth and nine holes along each side of its mouth.
John started for home with his miserable catch, and along the way met a mysterious man who took one look at the creature, and advised that it boded ill but that John must not throw it back, telling him that he had caught it and now he must deal with it.
John continued on his way home but paid no heed to the mans words, for as he grew weary of carrying his worthless catch he passed a well by the wayside and flung the creature into its watery depths.
As the years passed John Lambton grew up and went away to fight in the crusades, but the worm had survived its journey to the well and thrived in its cool depths. Gradually the vapours from the creature poisoned the water and the well fell into disuse, allowing the creature to grow undisturbed.
One night the creature left the well, having grown too large for its lair, and made its way to the river in which it was caught. The townspeople awoke the following day to find a blackened trail leading from the well to the river. News quickly spread of the enormous dragon like creature in the middle of the river. It was entirely black, had no legs or wings and tendrils of poisonous vapour escaped from its nostrils as it breathed. At night it would coil itself around the base of Penshaw hill leaving indentations in the hill visible to this day. (Three, seven or ten times depending on which version you read) It began to terrorise the surrounding area, taking sheep, calves and even children. The creature had a taste for milk, and left a trail of mutilated cows as it sought to quench its thirst.
Many tried to kill the creature as it ransacked the countryside but all failed, succumbing to either the teeth of the beast or drowning in the river in the struggle. Any parts of the worm that were severed would immediately reattach, making it seem invincible.
Eventually having lain to waste the land on the far side of the river, the worm arrived at Lambton hall. With his son still away fighting, the hall was vulnerable but the Lord was well loved by the villagers and they rallied round to protect the hall in which many had sought refuge from the creature. As the beast approached the hall, they filled a trough with milk and left it at the gates along with some tethered sheep. The worm drank all the milk, ate the sheep and left, sated, leaving the people and the rest of the animals alone.
The worm returned the following day and the townsfolk repeated the previous days actions. Again the worm left without harming anyone, and this became the pattern that was repeated daily for the next seven years, as long as they fed the worm it did not attack livestock or their children. However as it continued to grow it required more milk and more livestock, and the town became poverty stricken. As the tale of the terrifying monster that held sway over the town spread, people came to try and kill the creature for fame, but once again none succeeded.
When John Lambton returned from the crusades seven years later he was horrified at what had become of his hometown. His horror doubled when he saw the creature - he immediately recognised it as the black worm he had thrown into the well all those years ago. John vowed to rid the town of the beast. He was told of all the failed attempts to kill it and so sought the advice of a Sibyl (wise woman) as to how to proceed.
The wise woman berated John for bringing this scourge upon his home but eventually relented and gave him the advice he sought. She told him he was the only one who would be able to kill the creature since he had been the one to bring its terror upon the town. He must go to the blacksmiths and have suit of armour made, covered with sharp blades and wait at the rock in the middle of the river for the beast. Her advice did not come without a warning however - she told John that should he succeed in killing the worm he must also kill the first living thing to cross his path on his arrival back at Lambton hall. Failure to do so would ensure three times three generations of Lambtons would not die quietly in their beds.
With this heavy burden of knowledge, John had the suit of armour made by the local blacksmith. When it was ready and the time came to face the beast, John prepared by spending the night preceding the battle in the chapel. When dawn broke John made his way to the rock in the middle of the river Wear to await the arrival of the creature. He did not have to wait long.
Shortly after dawn the beast arrived at its haunt to find John waiting. Infuriated by the sight of him, the beast launched into a frenzied attack. John could not have withstood the beast’s onslaught, but for one thing- every time it tried to coil around him or crush him between its jaws, it recoiled in pain, cut to ribbons by the suit of armour. As it weakened, John hacked bits of the creature off with his sword into the water, where the swift current carried them away before they were able to rejoin the body of the beast. After a long and bloody fight the creature was finally dispatched with a mighty blow to the head.
Exhausted but jubilant, John made his way home to where his father waited anxiously for news of the outcome. His elation was to be short lived however. Not forgetting the wise woman’s words, John had asked his father to release his favourite hunting hound upon his return, in order that it would be the dog and not his father that John must slay when he arrived. However in the excitement of seeing John returning, exhausted but alive from his ordeal, this promise was forgotten as his father rushed out to welcome his hero son. Horrified at this unexpected turn of events John rushed past his father and slew the dog, hoping to avoid the curse upon his family. But it was too late. His vow was broken, and his faithful hound needlessly destroyed. The worm never returned, but for nine generations afterwards it is alleged no Lambton died in his bed. The last one is said to have died crossing the bridge to Brugeford in his carriage in the 1700s.
There are heavy moralistic overtones in that the unfortunate tale began when John skipped church, implying that had he done what he should, none of the horrifying events that followed would have ever taken place. For failing to deal with the consequences of his misdeed not only John, but all those around him suffered. It is interesting to note that although it is implied that it was skipping church that caused this terrible cycle of events, it is not the church but a local witch type figure that provides the solution albeit with a price.
These stories are found in other areas of England, Somerset and Essex having a similar concentration to Durham and Northumberland. They are often associated with areas near earthworks and hills, which may give credence to one of the possible explanations, that these stories arose from the lights of charcoal burners on hills at night, since the traditional method of making charcoal took several days, the light and smoke at certain stages would have been visible at night.
Another explanation, more widely accepted, and backed up by the fact that these creatures were often also associated with water is that these stories arose as a result of Viking invasion. It is worth noting that serpents are very prominent in early European mythology. The dragon head was a common prow ornament of the Viking ships, and given that the monsters in these stories are seen as having serpentine bodies with either only two legs or none at all, and often wings, its easy to see how the association was made with an invading Viking longboat with its sails, speed and imminent threat. Not to mention the recurring theme of terrorised villagers, struggling to feed the invading creature and the frequent involvement of the town’s young maidens!
One minor point here is the dates of these stories. There are centuries difference between the invasion of the Vikings and the apparent origins of some of these stories, However these stories were relayed by word of mouth, and, as is the case with urban legend, they were likely updated to include a more recent, or well known figure, to make the story more believable to its listeners, until it became fixed in history by being committed to paper and published.
Another theory is that these stories arise, in the northeast at least, as an explanation for fossils dug up as the North Yorks coast was excavated for Alum, a fixative for dyes that was mined most productively in Yorkshire in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the area around Whitby especially, examples of prehistoric marine crocodiles and other reptiles have been found, perhaps giving rise to legends of fearsome beasts that the population must have supposed once lived on the land. Ammonites are very common here and its not a huge leap of the imagination to see these as baby “worms”. In fact fossils are so prolific here, that a few minutes spent breaking open the right kinds of rock will almost certainly yield some kind of fossil.