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