Many parts of the UK have tales related to dragons or giant worms. Northumberland has the Laidley Worm, while County Durham boasts the tale of the Lambton Worm.
There are varying versions of the story, but I’m discussing the first version I heard. It links the Worm with Penshaw Hill, near Houghton-le-Spring. Other versions associate it with Worm Hill near Fatfield. You can’t miss Penshaw Hill since it’s now the site of Penshaw Monument.
The story of the Worm starts with John Lambton, an heir of the Lambton Estate. As with many such tales, the story concerns John’s many mistakes. The first concerns his decision to miss church one Sunday, going fishing instead in the River Wear.
Catching the Lambton Worm
John finally hooks a creature which is described variously as an eel or a lamprey. It varies across the stories from the size of a thumb to 3ft long. Making his second mistake, John decides he’s caught the devil and throws it down a local well.
Because that’s obviously how you’d cope with catching Satan himself.
John grows up and forgets about the worm. That’s his third mistake. While John is away fighting in the Crusades, the worm keeps growing and poisons the well. Eventually the worm crawls out of the well and coils itself around a hill. Livestock starts going missing and the villagers panic.
Most versions say that the worm can wrap itself around the hill seven times (so who knows how big the well was!) and locals say you can still see the marks on Worm Hill. After terrorising the locals, the worm heads off towards Lambton Castle. John’s father sedates it and villagers try to kill it. No one succeeds, and the worm even decimates a company of knights.
Eventually, John returns and discovers the destruction wrought by the worm. A local wise woman gives him advice on how to defeat it.
The worm is now wrapped around a rock in the River Wear, so John heads down to fight it, having covered his armour in spearheads. Part of the advice also requires him to kill the first living thing he sees after killing the worm to avoid a curse blighting his family.
John heads off down the river with his spearhead-bristling armour. His father agrees to release John’s favourite hound when John wins the battle so he can kill the first living thing he sees. It seems a bit harsh to choose his favourite hound for the task, but there you go.
Dispatching the Lambton Worm
John picks a fight with the worm, and when the worm tries to wrap itself around him, it cuts itself on his spikes. The pieces are washed away by the river so it can’t reassemble itself. Huzzah! Victory!
Not quite. John sounds his horn, but his father forgets to release the dog and runs down to see John. He can’t bring himself to kill his father, so he kills the dog anyway, but the curse seems to kick in after all.
According to the wise woman, nine generations of Lambtons wouldn’t die in their beds, and it was true for the first three at least. One drowned, and two died in battle. The ninth also died in an accident. Spooky.
There are songs and other oral traditions related to the worm. But why would Penshaw Hill be a more popular location than the (more likely) Worm Hill?
It’s possible that a natural catastrophe befell the Lambton area. Somehow, the family managed to turn the tide in favour of the locals. Over time, John Lambton’s deeds became his fight with the worm.
Perhaps the moral of the tale gained enough strength over the years. Skipping church on the sabbath never ends well in folk tales. Crucially John only fights the worm after he returns from the Crusades. So he comes good in the end.
I think a lot of it has to do with Penshaw Monument, which now crowns the Hill.
Penshaw Monument looks like a Greek Temple. Instead, it dates back to 1844, built in honour of John George Lambton, the first Earl of Durham.
It is a copy of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. All but one of the columns are solid, though one contains a spiral staircase that leads to the upper walkways. The stairs closed after a 15 year old boy fell to his death in 1926. The National Trust inherited the site in 1939 and reopened the stairs later.
The Monument memorialises the hill in a way that Worm Hill can’t match.
If you do climb up Penshaw Hill to the Monument, you can see Tyneside, Wearside and Durham. It’s definitely an iconic structure for the north east. It’s hardly surprising that it would be a favoured location for such a well known and beloved local folk tale!
If you’re interested, be sure to check out Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm, which draws on the legend, and it also appears in Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland graphic novel (both affiliate links)!
Have you got any giant worm tales in your local area?
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