The Lambton Worm, County Durham
The story of the Lambton Worm is well known in the North of England, especially its home county of Durham, but few in the South seem aware of the tale, which is a pity as it is a wonderful piece of folklore, often repeated in song, pantomime, storybook and rhyme.
Many centuries ago the heir of Lambton Hall, near Chester-le-Street, was one John Lambton. Young John was a handful and a rebel from an early age. One of his great joys was fishing, so much so that one day he even missed church on a Sunday to try his luck in the Wear. He caught nothing for hours, but then hooked something that struggled mightily on his line. As he landed the strange beast a passing old man saw it – head like a salamander, black worm-like body covered in slime, teeth sharp as razors – and crossed himself, saying it was devilish, and that the angler should destroy it but not put it back in the river. Accordingly, if unthinkingly, John threw it in a well on his way home.
When John Lambton became a man he regretted his misspent youth, and for penance joined a Crusade. While he was away the worm grew in its well, which it poisoned. Finally it emerged, a huge wingless dragon, and occupied a rock in the Wear from where it raided farms and fields for miles around, devouring sheep whole, and tearing cows apart to drink their milk. Anyone resisting was ripped to shreds, even knights who travelled to combat the creature. They sometimes hacked off a piece of the beast, but it quickly put the bit back and carried on unhurt. The only way of controlling the worm was to feed it milk, which rendered the lizard calm and drowsy.
After seven years John returned from the Holy Land, and learned of the beast. When he consulted a witch about how to kill it he was shown moreover that it was the worm he had fished on the Sabbath. The old woman told him to wear armour studded with sharp blades when he fought the creature, but because it was his fault the worm existed there was a complexity – after slaying it he would also have to slay the first living thing he saw, or for nine generations of Lambtons no head of the family would die abed.
Thus John took on the fierce worm in its lair in the Wear. When it curled around him it was ripped in a thousand places by his bladed armour, and any piece falling off was washed down the river. Finally he sliced off its salamander head. His battle over John signalled with a horn for a dog to be let loose and come to him, that he might despatch it and avoid the curse. But his father was overcome with joy, and raced to greet his victorious son. Son refused to kill father, and thus for nine succeeding generations the Lambton men met less than peaceful ends.
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