Once upon a time – when brave knights were off at the Crusades – in the northeast of England there lived a terrible dragon…

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PA Photos

A sunny morning spent fishing… or a morning in church? For young John Lambton, no contest. The wayward heir to Lambton Hall set off for the river Wear, while everyone else was at Sunday service. After a few hours with no bites, something strong and very fast took his hook. The excited boy set about landing what he hoped was a big fish.

But, when he finally landed his catch, he saw he’d caught a small black, wormlike creature. It had a head like a lizard, needle-sharp teeth and nine holes along each side of its mouth. It seemed to secrete a sticky slime.

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iStockphoto

The boy wasn’t pleased and was wondered what to do with the unappealing creature, when an old man appeared behind him. The man told the lad not to throw the creature back into the river, warning that catching it was an omen of bad luck – but things would be worse if he threw it back into the river. He told the boy that, that now he’d caught it, he’d have to deal with it.

John put the critter into his fishing basket and set off home. But he began to feel uneasy and decided to throw the worm into an old well on the road back to his home at Lambton Hall. The years passed and John Lambton forgot about his peculiar catch. He grew up and went off to the Crusades.

But, with every year, the worm grew bigger and stronger in its deep, dark hole. The well became unusable it poisoned its water, and strange evil vapours were seen coming from the well. Gossip said that the well had been cursed, and that something malign lived in its depths.

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iStockphoto

Then, one night, the worm – now grown into a hideous and powerful dragon – slithered out of the well and wrapped itself three times around some rocks in the middle of the river, leaving a trail of black slime as it went.

The news spread throughout the village and neighbouring farms. Those brave enough to dare a glimpse of the creature said the dragon had no legs or wings, but a thick, muscled body that rippled as it moved. It had a huge head, its mouth bristled with razor sharp teeth, and toxic vapours trailed from its nose and mouth.

During the day, the dragon stayed in the river and at night it came back on land and coiled itself three times around a nearby hill. But soon it became hungry and started to rampage around the countryside, always returning to its hill – still known as Worm Hill – or to Worms Rock, in the river Wear.

It hunted and ate lambs and sheep, and attacked cows to get at the milk, which it seemed to be able to smell from miles away. In desperation, some brave villagers tried to kill the beast but they were crushed and drowned in the river by the worm, or torn to pieces by its fangs.

After terrorising the village and surrounding farms for months, the dragon eventually made its way to Lambton Hall. Fortunately, the local residents came to their lord’s aid, and were ready for it. They filled a large stone trough with warm milk and, when the dragon came to the hall gates, it was distracted by the smell of its favourite fare. It plunged into the trough and drank all the milk – then returned satisfied to its home in the river.

And this continued for seven years. The dragon stopped its rampaging in the village and left livestock alone, only venturing out for its daily offering of milk at Lambton Hall. As the years passed, the trail became marked by a path of dark slime. Every so often, some brave soul would come to kill the dragon – but would always end up a victim to the worm.

Then John Lambton returned from the Crusades. The naughty boy who’d skipped church to fish had become a powerful, experienced knight. And so he decided he’d devise a plan to kill the beast.

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First, though, he consulted a local wise woman. She told him that he’d brought the dragon to the village, and so it was his duty to kill it. She also told him that only he could accomplish this.

Her instructions to him were strange – and ominous. He was to have the blacksmith make a suit of armour, studded all over with spear heads. Then he must go to the worm’s rock and await its arrival before doing battle.

The wise woman told him that, if he killed the dragon, he must also kill the first thing that crossed his path as he passed the threshold of Lambton Hall – if he failed to do this, ‘three times three generations of Lambtons would not die in their beds’.

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John listened to the advice and swore an oath to complete it. Once fitted with his suit of armour, he spent the night in the local chapel in prayerful vigil.

All through the next day, John Lambton wrestled with the dragon in the river. Every time it tried to wind around him to crush him, the spikes of his armour cut into its powerful body. Eventually, the dragon grew so weak, Lambton killed it with one blow of his sword.

Then he sounded three blasts on his bugle as a signal for his servants to release his favourite hound from the house, so he could complete his vow and kill the first thing to cross his path back at Lambton Hall.

But disaster struck – the servants forgot to turn loose the hound in the commotion and, as John reached 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 a swordstroke.

But too late – the vow was broken! So, for generations after, exactly as the wise woman predicted, none of the Lambtons would die peacefully in their beds. It would seem the Lambton Worm had the last laugh.

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Bryan Ferry even recorded a version of the tale of the fearsome Worm…

The Lambton Worm

 One Sunday morn young Lambton went

 A-fishin’ in the Wear

 He catched a fish upon his hook

 He thowt it very queer

 But what kind a fish it was

 Young Lambton couldn’t tell

 He couldn’t be fashed to carry it hyem

 So he hoyed doon the well

 

 CHORUS: Whisht lads, haad yer gobs,

 Aa’ll tell ye’s aall an awful story

 Whisht lads, haad yer gobs

 An’ Aal tell ye ’bout the worm

 

 Now Lambton felt inclined to gan

 An’ fight in foreign wars

 He joined a band o’ Knights that cared

 For neither wounds nor scars

 An’ off he went to Palestine

 Where queer things him befel

 And very soon forgot about

 The queer worm in the well

 

 But the worm got fat an’ growed an’ growed

 An’ growed an awful size

 With great big teeth, and great big gob

 An’ great big goggly eyes

 An’ when at night he craaled about

 To pick up bits o’news

 If he felt dry upon the road

 He milked a dozen coos

 

 CHORUS

 

 This fearful worm would often feed

 On calves an’ lambs an’ sheep

 An’ swally little bairns alive

 When they laid down to sleep

 An’ when he’d eaten all he could

 An’ he had had he’s fill

 He craaled away an’ lapped his tail

 Ten times round Pensher Hill

 

 Now news of this most awful worm

 An’ his queer gannins on

 Seun crossed the seas

 Gat to the ears of brave an’ bold Sir John

 So hyem he came an’ catched the beast

 An’ cut it in two halves

 An’ that soon stopped him eatin’ bairns

 An’ sheep an’ lambs and calves

 

 CHORUS

 

 So now ye knaa how all the folks

 On both sides of the Wear

 Lost lots o’ sheep an’ lots o’ sleep

 An’ lived in mortal fear

 So let’s have one, to brave Sir John

 That kept the bairns from harm

 Saved cows an’ calves by makin’ halves

 O’ the famous Lambton Worm

 CHORUS