The Tale of the Lambton Worm is an old traditional story from the North-East of Britain. I heard it several times as I was growing up, but when I recently recalled it for the first time in many years I thought you'd like to hear it too... (It's not the best story to read to small children just before bedtime though, as it's a little bloodthirsty in places!)
Once upon a time, just before the days of the Crusades, there was a young man called John Lambton. He lived near the village of Brugeford, and he was the heir to Lambton Hall. Although he was a good lad, he was wild in his youth and preferred fishing in the River Wear instead of attending church like all the other good folk of that place. He also had something of a foul mouth and was wont to swear in displeasure, especially when a fish eluded him.
One Sunday morning he had done particularly badly. No salmon lay in his basket, nor even the smallest fish to take home for lunch. Angered by his poor luck he swore and ranted - all he wanted was a single fish! Was he asking so much?! Suddenly, his fishing rod was nearly pulled from his hands as something caught on it and nearly took him with it. He managed to hang on to the side of the river and heaved with all his might. It took every little bit of his strength to pull his catch ashore. Although tired by his efforts he was pleased, thinking "This will be the biggest fish I or any other man has caught in this river!"
But when John finally hauled the struggling creature out of the water and dragged it onto the shore, he was horrified to see what looked like a black snake - but it was only six inches long! He looked closer and it was even uglier than he'd first thought. It oozed with clammy slime - a black worm-like thing with many sharp teeth like needles and nine holes in its head. It was deceptively strong, despite its small size, wriggling and twisting as it felt itself trapped by the hook.
John stood there, now cursing his bad luck for catching something as repulsive as this horrid worm. He gave a start when a strange old man who he'd not noticed standing nearby asked him what the matter was that he would swear so fouly, on a Sunday morning of all times. When John showed him his catch, the man said "It bodes no good for you or your kin to drag such a monster from the Wear, but cast him not back into the river. You have caught him, now you must keep him." Then the old man turned and left as abruptly as he had arrived.
John dropped the worm into his basket and headed off home to show off his disturbing catch, but as he walked home he felt a growing disquiet and wondered about the stranger's words - "...no good for you or your kin...". On his way, he passed by a deep well (which later was to be called Worm's Well), and decided this would be as good any any other place to rid himself of the vile little creature before some ill fate befell him or his family. Once it was down the well and out of sight, John quickly forgot all about it and carried on with the business of growing up and becoming a man.
The worm however, did not die in the depths of the well, but instead grew prodigiously, feeding off anything it could find. Strange and poisonous vapours began to be seen rising from the well, and the waters became fouled. The locals were fearful and started to avoid the place, believing the well under a curse. It was some years later when they were finally proven right. The worm had grown large enough to escape from its confines and hauled itself up and out into the green fields all around. Exploring its surroundings, it found the river from where it had been dragged, then wriggled and splashed through the shallow waters and coiled itself thrice around a lump of rock on a small island (later to become known as Worm's Island) in the middle of the river.
For a short while it did nothing, but rest and bide its time. The worm's appetites had grown accordingly with its new bulk and it soon satisfied its hunger by attacking and devouring a nearby herd of cows. It had a great love for drinking milk, which it could smell from miles away, and would rip open the cows to get at it, before eating their sundered remains.
It didn't take very long for the farmers to realise that their cows were being slaughtered and when they found the worm about its hunting they set about it with pitchforks and clubs. They soon realised that the Worm was more powerful than they had first thought, and were driven back, the Worm seemingly none the worse for wear. Later some of the stronger and braver villagers attacked the Worm after it had returned to Worm Island to coil itself in sleep. This time the Worm became greatly angered and crushed the villagers in its coils, drowning them in the river - the others it made short work of with its razor-sharp teeth.
Time and time again the Worm came out into the farmer's fields eating their cows, goats and anything else it laid its eyes upon. Each time it had eaten its fill, it would return to sleep at either Worm's Hill or the island in the Wear. "This Worm has become a menace to us all!", the farmers proclaimed loudly and with dismay. But there seemed nothing that could be done. Every now and again a fighter would pass through the area and try his luck. A fortunate few survived their encounter with the beast, but most ended as "Worm food".
As time passed the Worm grew bolder and one day was spotted slithering towards Lambton Hall itself, where the old Lord kept the best cattle in the country in his byre. Realising they couldn't possibly fight off the Worm, the quick-thinking Lord instructed his servants to milk all the cows and pour the milk into a large stone trough a goodly distance from the byre. When the Worm approached it hissed and snapped at the people nearby, but on smelling the milk dove straight towards it and drank it all down. After a while, the beast seemed to have drunk its fill and so sated returned to one of its haunts to sleep.
And so it would continue for the next seven years... The Worm would come whenever it was hungry, to drink the milk from the trough at Lambton Hall. Naturally, it wasn't always possible to fill the trough in time, and if the Worm didn't drink enough milk it would often become enraged and thrash its body, knocking over any trees that were nearby. What space there was remaining in its long belly was usually filled by whatever unfortunate men or cows were nearby... The fields were often to be seen darkened here and there, by the trails of thick black slime it left behind in its wake. The beast had grown immense and needed the milk of ten cows each day to keep it in check.
Eventually, it came to pass that John Lambton, now grown into a strong man of noble-bearing, returned to his old home, there to become Lord and put aside the weapons of war. He met with his father the Lord, at Lambton Hall and although his father was pleased to see him, sensed a dark shadow that seemed to hang over his old home. He had seen the smashed trees near the Hall and had wondered about them. His father then told him of the Worm which they must pay off in milk or risk its attacks. When he described the beast as having "...nine holes in its head", John realised with a heavy heart that he had been the cause of all this sorrow and destruction. He vowed immediately to rid his home of the Worm and end its life!
He found the beast coiled around the soft earth of Worm's Hill 1, and brought the battle to it with a vengeance! All day they fought, John's anger driving him to attack again and again, but the Worm seemed invulnerable to his blade, its flesh closing as rapidly as his sword opened it. He might do better to fight the river itself!
The next day, John and some others sought the wisest of the white witches who lived in the county and asked if there was any way they could kill the Worm. "I would give my life to rid my home of this beast", said John. "Aye, it may come to that", answered the wise old woman, "But I will tell you how you may defeat the Worm. Firstly, you must cover your armour with spikes to protect yourself from its crushing coils. And you must fight it in the River Wear - only there mind! Or else it will all be for nothing."
John was puzzled, but said that he would do as the witch advised. "There is another thing you must know though, John Lambton. The Worm will not die easily, and even if you can kill it, its death will not go unavenged. The price of avoiding the curse the Worm's death will bring about is to kill the first living thing that you see when you cross the threshold of Lambton Hall... If you do not do this then no Lampton man or woman will die in their bed for seven generations...!"
And so it was that John travelled to see the village smithy
, who cunningly took spearheads
and fashioned his armour so that it was fair bristling with them. Then he spoke with his father and the servants. "When I fight the Worm, if I should win, I will blow my hunting horn... When I do so, release Boris, my beloved hound, the most favoured dog that I have owned. His death will be a noble one if it assists us in freeing our home.
" His father agreed and said he would do as he asked.
Once all was in place John travelled to Worm Island, ready to battle to the death against the terrifying Worm. How huge it had become after all the years of drinking the best milk in the county! It was a sobering sight to behold it coiled around the rock. John splashed his way across the shallow, but fast-flowing waters of the Wear and stopped just short of the Island. The Worm awoke and saw the little man who had attacked it only the other day. This time he would pass the night in its belly! It hissed and shrieked, then rapidly uncoiled its vast bulk, slithering off the rock and into the Wear to attack its mortal enemy.
The Worm's slimy coils wrapped around him, their crushing mass driving the breath from his body. The spearheads did their work though, the Worm's own strength driving them deep into its black flesh and ripping it open in many places... The Worm howled with pain, and the water was greatly stained with its dark blood. John swung his sword down deep into the rapidly healing flesh and severed a great chunk of meat from the Worm's body. As it fell into the water it was quickly swept away in the rapid currents, and John saw then that the wound could not close shut without the fleshy lump to plug the gap! He saw then that the Worm could be defeated, and quickly swung left, right and in any direction from which the Worm's coils and teeth struck at him.
The Worm seemed to realise then that it was diminished and no longer as powerful, so it wound around him again, seeking to crush him this time. But the spearheads held and did their work well for a second time. The Worm bellowed in anguished pain and thrashed wildly, turning the water to bloodied foam and churning up the riverbed itself. John hacked and chopped, each swing taking the Worm's flesh and substance, until eventually it was a fraction of its former size and bleeding from a dozen or more wounds. Thus weakened, John Lampton the skilled, but now exhausted, warrior made one final almighty blow, down upon the Worm's neck. His sword rose and then fell like the smithy's hammer. There was a final howl of torment, then the mighty black head fell from its neck into the river and was carried away like all the other hewn pieces.
Although his armour had done better than he had hoped, John was still injured and tired to the point of collapse with the effort of fighting the Worm in the river. He staggered homewards, greatly weakened from his battle. When he reached Lambton Hall it was with no small effort that he finally lifted his hunting horn to his lips and blew a note to signal the fight was over.
At the sound of the horn through the Hall Lord Lambton rejoiced that his son John had been victorious - the Worm was slain! So filled with happiness was he that he felt a rush of youthful vigor return to him and he ran to the door to see his beloved child with his own eyes. At this his manservant cried out "Lord, the curse!" and chased after him fetching the hound. John saw his father and his blood turned to ice... The curse! He could not cut down his own father... As the servants stood in anguish, John sliced the head from Boris, the hound, hoping to appease the curse the witch had spoken of...
The curse was not to be fooled though - and so it was that for seven generations no Lambton died in their bed... The last to fall from the curse died in his carriage as he travelled over the bridge across the waters of the River Wear on his way to Brugeford...
- The story of the Lambton Worm was the basis for Bram Stoker's "The Lair of the White Worm", although the family name was cunningly changed to D'Ampton. Well done Bram - you almost had us fooled....
I wasn't going to include the old song of the story at first, but then I thought you'd get a kick out of trying to translate our Geordie dialect into English! If you can't manage that, it's fun to sing at least...
(Although the story of the Lambton Worm has been passed down through the generations by oral tradition, the song is much more recent, and it is known that it was first performed at a pantomime in the old Tyne Theatre in 1867.)
The Lambton Worm
One Sunday morn young Lambton
Went a-fishin' in the Wear;
An' catched a fish upon his huek,
He thowt leuk't varry queer,
But whatt'n a kind a fish it was
Young Lambton couldn't tell.
He couldn't be boshed for to carry it hyem,
So he hoyed it in a well.
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa'll tell yer aall and aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An' Aal tell yer 'bout the woorm.
Noo Lambton felt inclined to gan
For ta fight in foreign wars.
So he joined a troop o' Knights that cared
For neither wounds nor scars,
An' off he went to Palestine
Where queer things him befel,
An' varry seun forgot aboot
The funny worm i' the well.
But the woorm it growed an' growed an' growed,
An' growed an aaful size;
He'd geet big heed, a geet big gob,
An' geet big goggley eyes.
An' when at neets he craaled aboot
For ta' pick up bits o'news,
If he felt thoorsty upon the road,
He milked a dozen coos.
This feorful woorm 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 aal he cud
An' he had has he's fill,
Away he went an' lapped his tail
Ten times roond Pensher Hill.
The news of this geet funny woorm
An' his queer gannins on
Seun crossed the seas, and reached the lugs
Of brave an' bowld Sir John.
So hyem he cam an' catched the beast
An' cut 'im in three halves,
An' stopped it eatin' aall 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' haalves
O' the famis Lambton Woorm.
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 Woorm!
"North East Dialect : The Texts" by Bill Griffiths
- Yes, okay I know - they didn't have a lot of imagination with names back then!
All comments or questions welcome!
Last updated : 13th February, 2006